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Fishburne Brings ‘Raconteur’ Justice Marshall’s Legacy to Life on Stage

June 14, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As the Senate prepares to vet another Supreme Court nominee, Jeffrey Brown reports on a one-man show, starring actor Laurence Fishburne, about the life and legacy of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: justice and a justice brought to life on stage, even as the nation prepares for the latest real-life Supreme Court drama.

Jeffrey Brown has our story.

LAURENCE FISHBURNE, actor: May it please the court.

As I understand the position of the distinguished defense counsel…

JEFFREY BROWN: In 1954, Thurgood Marshall argued one of the most important cases in American history, Brown vs. Board of Education, which would pave the way for integration nationwide. The moment is captured in the play “Thurgood” now at Washington’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

LAURENCE FISHBURNE: Only one thing can justify continued segregation. And that is a determination that the people who were once held in slavery be kept as near to that condition as is possible. And now is the time for the court to make it clear that that is not what the Constitution of the United States stands for.

JEFFREY BROWN: Thurgood Marshall would go on to become the nation’s first black Supreme Court justice.

ELENA KAGAN, Supreme Court nominee: My professional life has been marked by great good fortune.

JEFFREY BROWN: And now one of his former clerks, Solicitor General Elena Kagan, is President Obama’s nominee to follow in his footsteps.

ELENA KAGAN: Thurgood Marshall, who did more to promote justice over the course of his legal career than did any lawyer in his lifetime.

JEFFREY BROWN: Marshall’s legacy will surely resurface during Kagan’s upcoming confirmation hearings. In the meantime, theater-goers can watch actor Laurence Fishburne channel the famous jurist on stage.

LAURENCE FISHBURNE: A man’s life’s work has affected everybody in this country in really, really important ways. I mean, there was a time in this country in many states not far from where you and I sit that we could not have gone into a restaurant and eaten together. And his life’s work changed that.

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s a line early on where he says — you say — the law is a weapon if you know how to use it.

LAURENCE FISHBURNE: Yes, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: That grabbed you?

LAURENCE FISHBURNE: It’s — it’s a true statement. I mean, it’s really a powerful, true statement.

JEFFREY BROWN: Thurgood Marshall was born in 1908 in Baltimore, the great grandson of a slave. His father was a railroad porter, his mother a school teacher. He attended Lincoln University and law school at Howard, the historically black institution in Washington, D.C., at a time when his home state University of Maryland was still segregated.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Thurgood” the play is presented as a one–man 90-minute talk to students at Howard, with a now elderly Marshall looking back and recounting key moments in his life.

LAURENCE FISHBURNE: So, one day, I’m sitting in the judges dining room. Bailiff comes in.

“Judge, Judge.”

“Fred, I told you not to bother me while I’m eating.”

“But, Judge, the president wants to talk to you.”

“The president of what?”

“The president of the United States.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Originally staged on Broadway two years ago, “Thurgood” was written by veteran film and TV producer and director George Stevens Jr.

GEORGE STEVENS JR., playwright: It’s the man that makes the play possible, because he had a gift for narrative and a sense of humor. And, through his life, he was telling stories to illustrate his experiences and to illustrate the civil rights issue. And all of that is fodder for telling his story on the stage.

JEFFREY BROWN: Stevens was able to use many of Marshall’s own words and stories from his writings, speeches and interviews, as when Marshall once described the moment Lyndon Johnson asked him to join the court.

THURGOOD MARSHALL, Supreme Court justice: He said, “We have gotten along pretty well all these years.”

I said, “Yes, sir.”

He said, “Well, I guess this is about the end, isn’t it?”

I said, “You mean and I being friends?”

He said, “Yes.”

GEORGE STEVENS JR.: The blessing of it is, is that people come to it expecting it’s going to be good for them because it’s about civil rights. But they find out it’s terribly funny, and that Marshall was a wonderfully entertaining man.

LAURENCE FISHBURNE: So, the chief judge of the federal court of appeals, he made my swearing-in New York a very nice deal, very nice, organized a group photograph with all the other judges.

And, just before everyone arrived, the photographer took a test shot and blew a fuse. I walk in a few minutes later, there are people milling around in the dark. This flustered secretary sees me.

“Oh, thank God, the electrician.”

“Lady, you must be crazy. You think a colored man could become an electrician in New York City?”

JEFFREY BROWN: This is a funny man. This is a natural story — raconteur…

JEFFREY BROWN: Right?

LAURENCE FISHBURNE: Yes, a raconteur of the highest order.

JEFFREY BROWN: And does that help you put it up — put it out there?

LAURENCE FISHBURNE: It’s fantastic. I mean, it’s fantastic. I wish I could tell stories as well as I know he did.

JEFFREY BROWN: As an actor doing a one-man play like this, you — you go from being an elderly man to young. You have to put — present what is in essence a 90-minute speech.

LAURENCE FISHBURNE: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: How do you pull that off on stage?

LAURENCE FISHBURNE: Well, that’s — that’s — that’s why I’m the actor.

LAURENCE FISHBURNE: That’s why they call me an actor.

LAURENCE FISHBURNE: That’s how we do that.

You hear this thing, you know, the one-man show, the one-person show, blah, blah, blah. I have a scene partner. My scene partner is the audience. I get a new scene partner every night. And I have to sort of read the room, you know, and sort of check the temperature of the room all the time to know where or how to take the audience on the journey that I would like to take them on.

JEFFREY BROWN: And nobody else on stage to play off of.

LAURENCE FISHBURNE: But someone certainly to play with and to listen to.

JEFFREY BROWN: Laurence Fishburne, best known for his film and TV work, including “The Matrix” and “CSI,” began his acting life on stage, and has had a special and ongoing commitment to the work of August Wilson and his exploration of African-American life. Thurgood, he says, fits right in.

LAURENCE FISHBURNE: Thurgood Marshall, who was the great grandson of a slave, yes, it — it fits. It’s — there’s — there’s some continuity there, I think.

JEFFREY BROWN: I assume, at this stage of your career, you don’t have to be working as hard nightly, as you do in a play like this.

LAURENCE FISHBURNE: I love what I do. And my work is my service. And I couldn’t imagine not doing it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Thurgood Marshall retired from the bench in 1991, and died two years later, at age 84. Now, of course, there’s new resonance to his story.

Let the man himself set it up.

THURGOOD MARSHALL: For the past four or five years, one of the questions — you know, we take our law clerks each year — and one of the questions I asked respective law clerks was, how do you like writing dissenting opinions? And if they said no, they didn’t get the job.

JEFFREY BROWN: One person who did get the job was the new nominee, Elena Kagan. Laurence Fishburne declined to offer her any advice. He’s the actor, remember. But, if she’s so inclined, she can now watch her former boss in action…

LAURENCE FISHBURNE: Color makes no difference insofar as this court is concerned.

JEFFREY BROWN: … and see him come to life on stage.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In fact, Supreme Court nominee Kagan was in the audience at the Kennedy Center last week. Performances of “Thurgood” continue through Sunday.