Sunday, February 1, 2015

Thurgood, Ensemble Theatre

(Greg White as Thurgood Marshall)

Some people just deserve having plays written about them, and one such person is Thurgood Marshall. As the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, appointed in 1967, he became an instant icon for equal rights in this country.

But as this piece by George Stevens, Jr. shows in the 85 minutes before he ascends to the highest court in the land, Marshall fought for people’s rights long before he donned those esteemed robes. His monumental win in “Brown v. Board of Education” 13 years earlier transformed the landscape of race relations, even though court battles continued.

Actually, Marshall always had a fondness for his first court victory when, as a young lawyer, he revealed the absurdity of "separate but equal" education and won the right for a black student to attend the segregated University Of Maryland law school.

These stories are told in a cozy, conversational manner in this one-person show with Greg White as Marshall. White is able to embody the passion of the man while scaling his aura down to a relatable size. As directed fluidly by Sarah May, White is always interesting and at times compelling.

Adding to the experience are photos, some of them incredibly evocative, that play across a panoramic screen that fills the back wall of the stage. Designed by Ian Hinz, these visual help the audience find their time and place as Marshall relates his various tales.

Unfortunately, playwright Stevens decides not to share many of Marshall’s less attractive character traits, which would give us a more three dimensional view of the man, Sure, he notes that Marshall enjoyed drinking and he touches on the fact that he was probably a workaholic and probably an often absentee husband to his wives. But any deeper flaws that might affect his behavior as a lawyer and a judge are well hidden, leaving us with more of a hagiography than a penetrating portrait.

Still, this Ensemble production is smooth and seamless. And it leaves you wishing a giant such Marshall was still sitting on the Supreme Court of the U.S. this very day, instead of a few of the moral pygmies and sycophantic toadies that now occupy some of those seats.

Through February 22 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930.

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