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For 90 minutes, Laurence Fishburne holds the Geffen Playhouse stage as the first black Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall. Wielding a presence so charismatic that he virtually presides over the audience, Fishburne tells a story of epic proportions filled with the kind of extraordinary opportunity and struggle that, in Marshall’s eyes, made our country great.
Throughout the narrative, the two issues that take center stage — Marshall’s larger-than-life personality and the part he played in the ongoing struggle between the federal government and the individual states (consider Arizona’s attempt to make its own immigration law and BP’s catastrophe in the Gulf) — add an ironic urgency and super reality to the proceedings.
At first there is no separating the man from the actor. Standing on an auditorium stage at Howard University Law School in Washington near the end of his life during the early 1990s, Fishburne inhabits George Stevens Jr.’s script so completely that it might have been the square-headed, physically imposing Marshall himself standing there, telling the story of his life, raging against injustice and relishing the pleasure he got from wine, women (primarily his two courageous wives) and righting social wrong. Occasionally, when the audience breaks out in spontaneous applause for great judicial or social achievements, it is not clear whether it is for the actor or for history.
The details of Marshall’s life are so well known that Stevens’ decision to leave out items such as his friendship with the almost universally demonized J. Edgar Hoover or his reaction to the appointment by the elder President Bush of the controversial Clarence Thomas as his replacement make the evening more one-dimensional than it might otherwise have been. Also, as the last 30 minutes wind down, there is an occasional lack of focus on both the part of the script and the actor.
The new Geffen production, created in partnership with the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, is simplicity itself. Fishburne wears a simple black suit, except for a brief moment at the end when he dons judicial robes.
The stage is bare except for a long wooden conference table, symbolizing the integrity, solid strength and long memory of the man. Meanwhile, a historically vivid selection of projected clips complements Fishburne’s measured pace, both in delivery and physical movement — aside from the occasional scampering around at moments of high excitement.
Venue: Geffen Playhouse, Westwood (Through Aug. 8)
Cast: Laurence Fishburne
Playwright: George Stevens Jr.
Director: Leonard Foglia
Set designer: Allen Moyer
Costume designer: Jane Greenwood
Lighting designer: Brian Nason
Projection design: Elaine J. McCarthy
Sound designer: Ryan Rumery
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