By HERBERT SIMPSON
Despite already having knocked people out in splendidly acted versions, this important and enormously appealing play seems to be moving to “National Treasure” status in ever-more-polished versions. Geva’s has nowhere to go after its just-opened, new production, which closes November 16 and will probably sell out. But this one-actor account of the extraordinary life of our first African-American Supreme Court justice is so rewarding, inspiring, and just plain fun that succeeding versions are probably already in the works.
Critical responses to earlier versions of this same play indicated its uneven development but were won over by Thurgood Marshall’s lifelong fight and historic victories for African-American equal rights and by the performances in the role by two of my favorite actors, Laurence Fishburne and James Earl Jones. Geva Theatre Center’s Thurgood, veteran actor Lester Purry, has lavished quite wonderful variety into his overwhelmingly winning portrayal, indicating youthful naivety, tentative doubts, amusement, potent sympathy, wise oversight, courage, anger, triumph …a genuine human hero. At the opening night reception, Garth Fagan and members of Garth Fagan Dance (who have coached every Lion King company worldwide) told me they were thrilled with Purry’s performance.
And playwright George Stevens Jr. seems likely to continue to work on his one play. I can’t believe that this is the only play that George Stevens Jr. has written. The founder of the American Film Institute and writer and director and producer of most of the Kennedy Center Honors until 2007, classic films like “The Thin Red Line.” “John F. Kennedy,” “Years of Lightning, Day of Drums”; “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and TV films like “Separate But Equal”; he has won multiple writer’s awards from the Writer’s Guild of America, Peabody Awards, and Emmy Awards for writing. So I suspect that he’ll keep polishing this splendid play.
Thurgood is set at Howard University’s Law School, where the aged alumnus is honored for his distinguished career, including the historic victory of Brown vs. the Board of Education which finally made illegal the law of “Separate But Equal.” But we flash back to his long struggle to defeat that and other civil rights issues as the champion lawyer of the NAACP.
And we see the heartbreak of the struggle for civil rights through the resilience of Marshall’s legendary wit. Howard was not Thurgood Marshall’s choice; but by the time it was honoring his achievements, Howard’s Law School had also risen to challenges and become the champion and source of Black lawyers in our nation’s capital. This production’s subtly suggestive visual changes and balanced development of Marshall’s public and private, distinguished and humane and ironic experiences fill in a history, a tribute, and a dramatic entertainment with surprisingly natural ease.
The playwright, director, and star are such high-level, seasoned pros that the polish of this impressive work is unsurprising. But the design and technical staff’s contributions also have the uniformly handsome creativity that we have come to expect from Geva, which seems to be on a roll this season.