A lot of people think of Thurgood Marshall as the first African-American justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Not as many realize that he was so much more than that.
Before his appointment to the Supreme Court, Marshall was a noted lawyer who fought and won some of the most important cases in America history. As the chief counsel for the NAACP, he won the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case that gave legal impetus to the entire civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s.
"I think most people know him as the Supreme Court Justice and don't really know that he was a superstar lawyer," said Montae Russell. "The media was different then. There were no cameras in the courtroom."
Russell is portraying Marshall in "Thurgood," a one-person drama a that opens Friday in the Keating Theatre at Florida Studio Theatre.
George Stevens Jr., the son of the legendary film director and an award-winning film and television writer and director himself, made his stage drama debut with "Thurgood." He had previously created the acclaimed televsion mini-series "Separate but Equal."
"This is basically the stage version of the mini-series," Russell said. "Sidney Poitier played Thurgood Marshall and Burt Lancaster played his adversary, John W. Davis. In the stage version, I play both Marshall and Davis."
The play premiered in New York in 2008, with Laurence Fishburne in the role. New York critics said it was compelling, even though it's essentially a lecture. That's how profound Marshall's life, and his impact on American society, remained, even 15 years after his death.
"It starts off as a lecture, but then as it goes on, Marshall says, 'I'm going to take you back to this time in my life,' " Russell said. "We see how much he loved his wife, and we learn about his need to have children."
So even though the play starts with an aged Marshall, scenes revisit his early work, and his youth, as Marshall's age changes through the course of the play.
"He didn't grow up poor, but he grew up under segregation," Russell said. "He saw there were things he couldn't do simply because someone didn't want him to do them, and he couldn't live that way. He came for a long line of people with a rebellious spirit. That fighting spirit was always in him. He wanted to be a dentist, but because of people that he met and things that he saw and things that happened to him, he said, 'No, I need to be a lawyer.' "
This is Russell's first show at Florida Studio Theatre, but it isn't the first time Russell has appeared on stage as Marshall. Earlier this year, he performed the same play at the Pittsburgh Public Theater.
"It went very well," he said. "Thirty-two shows, 32 standing O's. It was the kind of thing that when the show ended, I felt that I would revisit this show again."
Details: Dec. 13- Feb. 22, Keating Theatre at Florida Studio Theatre, 241 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota. Show times: Various. Tickets: $18-$32. Information: 941-366-9000, www.floridastudiotheatre.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.