Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, had a reputation as a hero and a trickster. He was a bigger-than-life character who routinely defied death by barnstorming the South during Jim Crow to represent the most hopeless of lost causes as a lawyer for the NAACP.
Once appointed to the Supreme Court by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967, Marshall became a liberal maverick who, in his own words, "did everything in my power to protect every American citizen."
Because Marshall spent so many years staring into the abyss of racial ignorance, he cultivated a pragmatism and a sense of humor that was essential for dealing with laws devoid of any notion of justice. What was more absurd than the necessity of asserting the constitutional rights of black folks in the middle of the 20th century? Fortunately for our democracy, Marshall's humor -- corny and self-deprecating -- was always at the service of a first-rate legal mind.
Homestead native Montae Russell captures Marshall's irreverent bluster and devotion to justice in George Stevens Jr.'s one-man play "Thurgood," directed by Ted Pappas at Pittsburgh Public Theater.
The play opens with the elderly justice's return to Howard University Law School, his alma mater. At Howard, Marshall, who graduated from the school in 1933, learned everything he needed to learn about the practice of law from a stern academic taskmaster who instilled in him the need and the desire to be "better than the other guy."
Pacing the stage with a cane at first to convey his elderly vulnerability, as well as his impatience, Marshall addresses the audience as though he were talking off the cuff to an auditorium full of law students at Howard.
When he shouts out questions to the audience about the names of landmark civil rights cases, it isn't a rhetorical device. Mr. Russell as Marshall expects an answer, a situation very similar to the "amen" moment in a boisterous black church.
Marshall sheds the cane and picks up his pace on stage once the bulk of his monologue shifts to his younger, more halcyon days fighting the battles that would define the civil rights struggle and undermine American apartheid as a legally sanctioned principle.
Marshall's stance on picking and choosing his battles was hilariously illustrated when, working as a waiter, he was often accosted by a racist senator. Previously, Marshall had a zero-tolerance policy for being called a racial slur by any white man. He would punch out anyone, no matter who he was, if he disrespected Marshall. But the future jurist made an exception for the senator because the insult was usually accompanied by an exceptionally generous tip, which helped him pay for school. Marshall wasn't interested in keeping it real if it meant he couldn't afford school. "Those $20 tips add up," he quipped.
What comes across most in Mr. Russell's portrayal of Marshall is how mission oriented the late associate justice was despite his swagger. The education of black children occupies the center of the play as Marshall recounts the drama behind the famous 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision he successfully argued before the Supreme Court.
"A man without a ballot isn't a citizen," he says at one point, followed by, "a ballot means nothing without a first-class education."
Marshall understood the connection between things, although he often couched his philosophic sophistication behind earthy language.
The production is spare and quick with minimal furniture on the set. It also features wall projections and subtle lighting that elaborate Marshall's stories at crucial moments without ever becoming heavy-handed or intrusive. There were a couple of verbal hiccups during Thursday night's performance but nothing major. Mr. Russell grew into Marshall's very big shoes every minute the play progressed.
While watching "Thurgood," it is impossible not to imagine what the Justice Clarence Thomas story would look like if it were ever mounted on stage like Justice Marshall's. Both were scarred by Jim Crow but responded to the racial indignities in vastly different ways and formed vastly different judicial philosophies as a result.
"Thurgood" made a very good argument for the elevation to the U.S. Supreme Court of a man who paid his dues by toiling for colorblind justice in the fiery furnace of American racial resentment. Marshall was less concerned about the color of his replacement on the Supreme Court than the content of his or her character.
"There's no difference between a black snake and a white snake," Marshall said at one point. "They both bite."
Tony Norman: email@example.com or 412-263-1631. First Published March 16, 2013 4:00 AM