Civil rights icon elevated in one man play
Lester Purry portrays the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in the current Portland Playhouse production of “Thurgood” a one-man play about the first Black justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, now playing through Feb. 27. PHOTO BY SHAWNTE SIMS/COURTESY PORTLAND PLAYHOUSE
As a Chicana appellate judge who carries deep concern about justice and specifically racial injustice, former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall frequently comes to my mind. The work of an appellate judge or justice is done mostly outside of public view; the questions they ask at oral argument are but a tiny window into their work, and their opinions (aside from dissents) reflect a consensus process and not necessarily what they would really like to say, all the more so if they speak from the margins. I know that Justice Marshall, who became the first Black justice on the U. S. Supreme Court in 1967, sat in rooms where he must have felt like I often feel—unheard, frustrated by the limits of what his colleagues were willing or able to consider, burdened by experiences he had had that none of his colleagues could even imagine. When I experience those things, I want to ask him how he handled it, how he handled the impatience and anger that I know he must frequently have experienced in spaces where he felt, and was, alone.
These are not the questions that primarily occupy “Thurgood,” the one-man play about the legal icon, currently playing at Portland Playhouse. The play, written by George S. Stevens, Jr., focuses mostly on Marshall’s work as a ground-breaking civil rights attorney for the NAACP, most prominently as the lawyer who argued Brown v. Board of Education, persuading the Supreme Court to overrule its own precedent that had been used to justify segregation and Jim Crow laws. All that work is worth celebrating, and the play presents Marshall, by all accounts accurately, as a fierce advocate and a believer in the law as a tool for bringing about justice.
I want people to see this production, which features a fantastic central performance by Lester Purry, whom Portland audiences may remember from his riveting turn as Troy Maxson in Portland Playhouse’s production of “Fences” in 2018. He appears here under the direction of Lou Bellamy, who also directed that production of “Fences” and is the founder and artistic director emeritus of Penumbra Theatre Company in St. Paul, Minn. These two veterans, working with a solid creative team, have invested the work with intention in this exploration of Marshall’s career offered in a fictional presentation at his alma mater, Howard University, drawing heavily from Marshall’s own speeches and writing. Purry embodies Marshall’s energy and heart and humor and determination, and holds the audience with well-timed movement and the talent of a good storyteller, while thoughtful projections help us envision some of the complexities of his story. Marshall’s place in history deserves this space and attention, and Purry and Bellamy have elevated the material beyond the limits of the script.
But I also want people to leave with more questions about Marshall. I appreciate where Stevens’ interest took him, as a white writer and director and well-connected founder of the American Film Institute—but it strikes me that the triumphal parts of Marshall’s story which are the focus of the play are not all there is to tell, and are the parts that may be too satisfying to a dominant culture audience. What was it like for Marshall to serve as an appellate judge for three decades, most of that time on the Supreme Court? Was he lonely? How often was he misunderstood and unheard? What patience and courage did he have to employ? How much of what he really thought was he able to express? How did he feel about the fierce pushback on the precedents he helped create as an attorney? How many fights did he lose that he ought to have won? Why did he believe in a system that so regularly failed him?
The play doesn’t serve up these questions (and I’d love to see a Black writer wrestle with them), but the seeds are there. Many of us operating now don’t feel the faith in the system that Marshall evinced—so how do we think about that? How can we be in dialogue with and learn from this man who exerted so much grit and determination and vision at a different time in history, without the benefit of what we know now was possible and also without the distraction of all the ways we can now see that his work has been undermined?
As depicted here, Marshall was a true believer, including in the law. He also wasn’t a fool. He strikes me as a good example of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ thesis in the 1619 Project—that Black people have led the way to actualizing the ideals of American democracy. Marshall didn’t leave anything on the table, but instead kept showing up in the ways he could see to do, even in the face of extreme risk and also failures and being ignored. He didn’t always win; he lost plenty. I hope that people will not leave this production feeling so satisfied that they forget to engage the work to which Marshall’s legacy points us.
“Thurgood” plays at Portland Playhouse through Feb. 27.
Darleen Ortega is a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals and the first woman of color to serve in that capacity. Her movie and theater review column Opinionated Judge appears regularly in The Portland Observer. Find her review blog at opinionatedjudge.blogspot.com.