'Thurgood' inspires and instructs in Sarasota

The civil rights hero comes to life in Florida Studio Theatre's one-man show

mclear@bradenton.comDecember 22, 2013 

It's been more than 20 years since Thurgood Marshall resigned from the United States Supreme Court, nearly 60 since he argued and won "Brown vs. Board of Education," the Supreme Court case that started the dominoes falling in the legal fight against segregation.

Time has clouded the memory of Marshall's contribution to civil rights; such legends as Martin Luther King and such radical groups as the Black Panthers have left a clearer legacy than Marshall, who considered even King's non-violent civil disobedience extreme.

"Thurgood," a one-man play about Marshall's life and career, powerfully affirms his essential role in shaping civil rights, an even shaping the era. It leaves no doubt that Marshall was a hero.

It's currently at Sarasota's Florida Studio Theatre. It's predictably educational and edifying. It's also, perhaps not so predictably, compelling and entertaining.

One big reason is the performance of Montae Russell, who's making his FST debut.

As the play opens, Marshall is an old man, walking with a cane and already retired from the Supreme Court, addressing students at Howard University. Russell's voice is deep and raspy, his delivery stentorian.

But as he relates stories about Marshall's younger years, Russell abandons both the cane and, gradually, the rasp. His voice raises in tone and sweetens in timbre, and his movements become nimble and energetic.

He tells stories of Marshall's childhood in Maryland in the days of segregation, when he found himself in a part of town with no restrooms for black people, and he had to hop on a streetcar to rush home to use the bathroom, and didn't make it.

He tells of not being allowed into the college he wanted to attend, and directed instead to a "separate-but-equal" college that was demonstrably unequal -- and of getting revenge as a lawyer by forcing the school to integrate.

He tells of his legal victories, in which he battled against centuries of oppressive court decisions and prejudice, and prevailed by strict adherence to logic and law.

He tells stories about people he met along the way, the likes of King, Lyndon Johnson and his Howard classmate Langston Hughes.

Russell infuses the wordy script by George Stevens Jr. (an award-winning writer and the son of the legendary film director) with enough action and emotional dynamic to keep it from feeling static. He has Marshall traveling back and forth in time, to various points in his life and back to the lectern at Howard, and the transitions are invariably graceful.

If there's a fault with Russell's performance, it's that he sometimes goes overboard in trying to create movement. Every time he mentions baseball, he mimes swinging a bat, and the effect is self-conscious and unnatural.

If there's a fault with the script, it's that it occasionally spends too much time on aspects of Marshall's life that are less significant and brushes through some incidents that we'd like to know more about.

But Russell's performance, directed by Kate Alexander on a lovely, simple set by Bruce Price, is so commanding and so nuanced that it easily overcomes any slight flaws.

"Thurgood" enlightens and inspires, both as a chronicle of a pivotal era and a nation-changing man, and as an invigorating work of performing art. It's the kind of theater that theater-lovers love.

Details: "Thurgood," various times through Feb. 22 at Florida Studio Theatre, 241 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota. Tickets are $18-$32. Call 941-366-9000 or go to www.floridastudiotheatre.org.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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