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NY Theater Reviews

Laurence Fishburne

LAYING DOWN THE LAW

By BILL STEVENSON

Thurgood is a riveting one-hander about Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to serve on the Supreme Court. Lawrence Fishbourne gives a towering performance as the powerful justice.

George Stevens Jr.'s one-man play about Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to serve on the Supreme Court is a conventional and straightforward life story. On paper it would be a dry , albeit interesting , history lesson. But on stage it's a wonderful vehicle for Laurence Fishbourne, who gives one of the best performances of his career as the pioneering justice.

Starting with his entrance as the elderly Marshall, Fishbourne holds the audience's attention. The setting is Howard University law school, where Marshall studied during the Depression, and the now-retired justice is speaking to current students. The law is a weapon, if you know how to use it, he says.

From then on, Thurgood is essentially a string of anecdotes recapping his life and career. We learn that he was named for his grandfather, Thoroughgood, and shortened his name in grade school. Marshall studied law at Howard University because the University of Maryland wouldn't admit African-Americans. One of his first courtroom victories forced the university to admit qualified black applicants.

As chief counsel for the NAACP, Marshall spent much of his career fighting for civil rights. A significant legal hurdle was the Supreme Court decision back in 1896 of Plessy v. Ferguson, which required separate but equal public facilities for blacks and whites. Marshall helped win the landmark 1954 decision Brown v. Board of Education, which began the process of desegregation. Thurgood reaches its dramatic peak as Marshall relives nervously arguing the case before the Supreme Court. We learn that the untimely death of Chief Justice Vinson provided a second chance for Marshall to present his case more forcefully.

After that climatic story, even Marshall's nearly 25-year tenure on the High Court comes as something of a letdown. Stevens devotes too much time to his appointment by President Lyndon Johnson and too little to what Marshall accomplished-and couldn't accomplish as the Court grew more conservative in the ?s and ?s.

Stevens, a first-time playwright who wrote and directed the miniseries Separate but Equal about Brown v. Board of Education, provides a good sense of Marshall's determination, work ethic, and sense of humor. Overall, it's a glowing tribute, with only brief mentions of Marshall's fondness for liquor and women. The 95-minute running time doesn't allow for an in- depth look at his personal life , so we're left knowing ,more about Marshall the lawyer than Marshall the husband and father.

There's no question that his life story is an inspiring one, however, and Fishbourne makes it engrossing. Using his commanding voice, he's captivating even when Stevens' writing is somewhat flat. After spending most of his career making movies like The Matrix and the current 21, the actor (a Tony winner for Two Trains Running back in 1992) should consider doing theater more often.

Director Leonard Foglia smartly has Fishbourne move around the stage, which has a long table at its center and a large white flag sculpture hanging on the rear wall. Slide and video projections on the flag add visual variety but never upstage the star, who is without doubt the main attraction.