Each year, Tacoma’s Broadway Center for the Performing Arts has striven to include theatrical works that examine issues of social justice and civil rights. Examples include August Wilson’s plays about the African American odyssey. In January, the Broadway Center produced a touring show that reached more than 24,000 Tacoma-area students. Called “11 Days in the Life of Dr. King,” the performance chronicled Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy through 11 spoken word and poetry vignettes that were accompanied by dance, shadow play and historic images.
Broadway Center’s latest offering is an incandescent production of George Stevens, Jr.’s one-man play “Thurgood,” a verbal tour of the life of Thurgood Marshall, the first African American United States Supreme Court justice. The play was first shown in 2006, when it starred James Earl Jones.
Broadway Center’s production of the play is performed in Tacoma’s Theater on the Square (915 Broadway). Eric Clausell stars as Thurgood Marshall. Clausell is a gifted and multitalented actor who has performed in musicals ever since his childhood in New York City. He moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2012 and has been involved in the local performing arts scene ever since. “Thurgood” requires its actor to possess wide range and depth in order to flesh out the role. Clausell presents Marshall as a man of brilliance, humor and compassion who relentlessly exerted all of his time and effort to obtain justice under the law. The audience witnesses an old man who becomes young and vigorous as he relives the story of his long and eventful life. It is a remarkable performance. Up there on the stage, all by himself, Clausell keeps the audience so engrossed that the hour and 45-minute performance flows seamlessly by.
The play is presented as an address that Thurgood Marshall, now a retired United States Supreme Court justice, is giving to an audience at his alma mater, Howard University in Washington, D.C. As he recounts his life, the old man sets aside his cane and becomes transformed into a young student, a civil rights lawyer, a circuit court judge, a solicitor general of the United States and, finally, a Supreme Court justice. Marshall comes to life as very engaging character. The audience quickly warms to the tale, engaged from the start by Marshall’s earliest reminiscences of a family with “distinctive names and extreme stubbornness.”
Marshall’s telling of his journey is sprinkled with memorable quotes like: “The law is a weapon if you know how to use it,” or “a lawyer who isn’t a social engineer is a social parasite.”
One comes away from the play not only engrossed and entertained, but also a whole lot more knowledgeable. It is as if some of Marshall’s smarts rub off just from listening. There is a ton of information delivered smoothly and easily. As an audience member, you will become conversant with things like the Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court decision that the Southern states used as the basis of their segregation policies and Jim Crow laws. You will become familiar with the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which insures full rights of citizenship to all people born or naturalized in the United States. You will also learn how Marshall and his fellow NAACP lawyers crafted a strategy to prove that “separate but equal” is a farce. The pinnacle of their achievement was the ruling of the Supreme Court in the Brown v. Board of Education case, which Marshall argued as a lawyer before the court.
Marshall also took on Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who refused to enforce Harry S. Truman’s executive order to desegregate the military, and recounts a harrowing escape from a lynch mob in Tennessee. Marshall was made a circuit court judge under President John F. Kennedy and was named solicitor general and finally Supreme Court justice by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Throughout the play, Marshall maintains a steadfast belief in the law, which is the power of reason over ignorance and prejudice. There is a sense that if you make a logical case, others must concede the correctness of it or show themselves to be outlaws – disrespectors of the very laws that they claim to be upholding.
The Broadway Center production features a somewhat Spartan set, which is presided over by a huge, three-dimensional flag in the background. The flag is all white, the stars and stripes standing out not by color but by relief. This prop is symbolic of the edifice of white America that Marshall was up against, but, more practically, it also functions as a screen for projected images of historic photographs that illustrate the stories that Marshall is telling.
The second weekend of the two-week run of “Thurgood” is coming up: March 1-3 with showings at 7:30 each evening with the addition of a 3 p.m. matinee on March 3. For further information, visit broadwaycenter.org.