New Rep Theater, Watertown
Through February 7th
Reviewed by Bobby Franklin
Last night I got to spend the evening with former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. I and a number of other people got to see him in a small theatre in Watertown, MA. He told us about his life, his struggles, his battles. He was funny and touching. We felt the pain and the frustrations he went through as he fought to desegregate the schools and fight to ensure that all of the citizens of the United States were treated equally. We heard him argue before the Supreme Court. We shared in his disappointment when losing a case and his joy when he shared his victories, of which there were many, most notably in Brown v Board of Education.
Justice Marshall passed away in 1991, but he is very much alive in the intimate setting of the Black Box Theatre at the New Rep in Watertown. He is because of the amazing talent of Johnny Lee Davenport.
When Mr. Davenport first steps into the theater he is walking with a cane and begins reflecting on this amazing life. We are at Howard University where Marshall learned that a black law student had to learn to be better than good because of the challenges he would face.
While attending Lincoln College, Marshall was classmates with Langston Hughes who taught him that “One man can make a difference.” and early on the future Supreme Court Justice vowed he was not going to go through life being humiliated because of the color of his skin.
Johnny Lee Davenport relates these stories and so many others in this amazing journey with such authenticity that there were times when I almost stood up to ask him, meaning Justice Marshall, a question. Mr. Davenport’s movements about the stage, his pauses, the emotions, the subtleties in voice and step that cue us in on the different periods of Marshall’s life are so smooth and authentic that there was never a moment when I didn’t feel I was actually in the presence of Thurgood Marshall.
The Black Box Theater is small. The stage is set with a leather chair on wheels, a table, coat rack, a briefcase, and a stack of books. On the wall are photos of people and places from Marshall’s life including his first wife Buster. Mr. Davenport reaches under the table at times to bring out a small lectern that he uses while arguing cases. It is the ideal setting for such a production. The audience is part of this play as Mr. Davenport makes continuous eye contact with people.
At one point Marshall asks an audience member to read the 14th Amendment. It is a moving moment as we hear the words that guarantee all Americans, ALL AMERICANS, equal protection under the law.
At another point he reaches into his briefcase and takes out two baby dolls, one black and one white. This was the famous doll test that was conducted by Dr. Kenneth Clark. It is heartbreaking to hear the results of what happened when black children were asked which doll they thought was better and which they would like to be.
Justice Marshall had his flaws as do all humans, but what he accomplished in his life was simply amazing. This man who was born in the same year Jack Johnson became the first Heavyweight Champion, would not rest until this nation abided by the words in the 14th Amendment. He used, in his words, the law as a weapon. It was a weapon he wielded wisely and successfully.
George Stevens, Jr. has put together a wonderful script that never misses a beat. Benny Sato Ambush’s directing is terrific.. They have done an important service in putting together for the stage this amazing story.
I know it is early in the 2017 theatre season, but I can ensure you that Johnny Lee Davenport’s portrayal of Marshall in Thurgood will be remembered as one of the great performances of the year.