Thurgood: Creating the Character of a Neglected Civil Rights Hero

By Rebecca Halat and Adam Schenck

Even before the film Selma, and before President Obama’s return to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in that Alabama town, we all knew the story of Martin Luther King, Jr. Many of us even know that the heroic orator’s persona has been sanitized to quell our worries about race and inequality today.

But what about an equally important Civil Rights hero, Thurgood Marshall, the man who won the Brown v. Board of Education case in which the Supreme Court struck down segregated schools across the United States? Who then went on to serve on that same court from 1967 to 1991? Although Thurgood Marshall came from a different era of the Civil Rights movement and had a different style, it does not mean that he made no less difference.

The Illusion Theater’s production of Thurgood seeks to fill this lacuna in our historical consciousness. James Craven portrays the lawyer and judge as a folksy, self-deprecating man whose wry humor allows him to climb upward in his career and for his people when all he was trying to do was act locally—to find justice in the face of the racist assumptions of his times.

In all honesty, when I (Rebecca) first saw that Thurgood was a one-man play, I was filled with dread. It takes a tremendous talent to pull off that type of performance, and even with the requisite talent, a one-person show is not easy to do well. All this said, James Craven’s portrayal of Thurgood pleasantly surprised me.

Craven takes the audience though the life and career of the singular American legal mind of Thurgood Marshall. Even though we all know the outcome of his best-known Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the performance still built suspense for these critics.

Particularly impressive is Craven’s ability to carry the show. The sheer physicality of what is required of a one-person show is impressive, and Craven did not falter while portraying his character. His delivery is natural and not over-rehearsed. Craven’s cadence flows like one of the best lectures. A law school lecture is ironically the diagesis (or scenario) of the performance. This foregrounding allows Craven, as Marshall, to have normal corrections and shifts in his speech patterns as he delivers page after page of monologue. If Craven stumbled over his lines, he made it seem like a normal part of speech, a testament to his talent.

We two critics did have one disagreement: Adam thought the lecture format could have invited a more spontaneous, interactive performance from Craven’s Marshall, but Rebecca suggests that this would understate the historical import of the material. That said, I (Adam) think that the easygoing, conversational Thurgood character Craven creates would actually have a wry look at a student who coughs or gets distracted, but the experienced Craven goes line by line.

Nonetheless, the powerful lesson of Thurgood is that individuals in the history books were real people, who faced challenges similar to the ones we face, but whose character, when called upon, matched the weight of their times. Thurgood is a salient reminder that the forces of evil are not the villains of simplistic storytelling; they are us—in the sense that evil comes from the lazy assumptions we choose to hold on to about other people.

See this film during its short Minneapolis run if you are interested in history, social movements, and/or the way in which character can come alive on the stage.

Tickets for Thurgood are $20-35.  Group discounts are available for groups of 10 or more people. Tickets are available at the Illusion Theater Box Office at 612-339-4944 or online at www.illusiontheater.org. Illusion Theater: eighth floor of the Cowles Center, 528 Hennepin Ave.

Performance Schedule

Thursday, March 5 @ 8pm – Preview

Friday, March 6 @ 8pm – Opening Night

Saturday, March 7 @ 8pm

Sunday, March 8 @ 2pm

Wednesday, March 11 @ 10am – Matinee

Thursday, March 12 @ 8pm

Friday, March 13 @ 8pm

Saturday, March 14 @ 8pm – Audio-described and ASL performance

Sunday, March 15 @ 2pm

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