Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Fabulous Performance...

... by Laurence Fishburne as Justice Thurgood Marshall in Thurgood at the Geffen Playhouse. I'm sometimes dubious, at concerts and at the theater, about the now seemingly standard "standing ovation"--to often barely deserved. This one, prolonged and enthusiastic, was absolutely earned. Fishburne's performance was totally convincing and compelling, moment to moment, from beginning to end of this short dramatization by George Stevens Jr. There was not one small false step.

The play, of course, is timely in itself. It premiered in New York in April, 2008--the year we elected our first black President; it is re-staged now, in Los Angeles, just as Marshall's former clerk, Elena Kagan, faces often hostile questioning in her nomination hearings for a seat on the Supreme Court. The issues Thurgood Marsh
all had to face have not gone away. They have simply re-emerged in a new context. You are still likely to be tarred and feathered as a "liberal"
in America if you stand up for social justice.

Thurgood Marshall's life-long battle against racial and social injustice is an inspiration to those of us who continue to struggle in less prominent ways. His path from a dirt-poor childhood to Supreme Court Justice is testimony to an uncompromising commitment to the ideals this country purports to stand for--and too often fails to live up to. Fishburne manages to convey the man's strength, his vision, his integrity, as well as his human weaknesses. The Thurgood we get in this performance is at once tough, resilient and vulnerable, but not without vanity and a sense of self-importance, tempered with a wry humor and a broad, compassionate perspective on the frailties of humanity. Ostensibly, in this dramatization, lecturing late in life at his alma mater, Howard University, he looks back at the hardships and the suffering as well as at such landmark triumphs as Brown vs. Board of Education.

What Fishburne shows us through his performance is what Thurgood Marshall embodied in his life: America at both its worst and best. He leaves the audience on a poignant note of hope that reminds us where we stand today, at an historical moment where the country hovers between hope and despair, between the fulfillment of its great vision and the threat of self-destruction in partisan bickering and petty politics. Who knows which path we'll choose?

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