Tony Kushner opens the second half of Angels in America with a character named The World's Oldest Bolshevik ridiculing modern socialists as "pygmy children of a gigantic race." It's hard not to think of that watching Thurgood, about the late Thurgood Marshall, at Pittsburgh Public Theater.
This one-man show makes the case that Marshall may be the last great Supreme Court Justice; even the few good contemporary ones are small-bore moderates reacting to, rather than leading, the times. And it's our fault; we pygmy children who, through apathy and myopia, have midwifed a political system in which mavericks like Marshall can never again flourish.
But it isn't playwright George Stevens Jr.'s aim to show how far we've fallen from the path. Thurgood is, from start to finish, a Marshall hagiography recounting his life and times.
Make that his remarkable life and historic times. Marshall was NAACP chief counsel and fought segregation and Jim Crow laws for 30 years. He argued Brown v. Board of Education at the Supreme Court, served on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, became the U.S. Solicitor General and, in 1967, was appointed to the Supreme Court. And much of that, in fact most everything he did, can be prefaced with "First African American to ..."
Thurgood, truth to tell, isn't really what you'd call a play. The "plot" is Marshall in his later years giving a speech at his alma mater, Howard University. Stevens has, in fact, just strung together enough anecdotes and generalized facts to fill 90 minutes. It should be dull, but when the anecdotes and facts are as sensational as Marshall's, the evening is entertaining throughout.
Ted Pappas directs Montae Russell in an unabashedly bravura performance. Russell never shies away from any outsized emotion. His ferocity is more than appropriate considering Marshall's leonine nature, but I think a few moments of quiet, too, could allow both the performance and production to breath. Russell possesses a natural comedic flair, and a little more of that as well wouldn't go amiss.
I'm not sure we pygmy children deserve Marshall, but Thurgood shows how lucky we were to have him.