Black Justice Thurgood Marshall Portrayed On Stage

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Host Michel Martin talks with actor Laurence Fishburne and playwright George Stevens, Jr. about Thurgood, a one-man play about the life of civil rights icon and pioneering African-American Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. They discuss the pressures of portraying a real-life historical figure and why they were so drawn to the project.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

For today's final conversation, we've stepped outside our studio and headed to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The Kennedy Center for the first three weeks of June will be home to the play "Thurgood," starring Laurence Fishburne. The production tells the story of the late Thurgood Marshall. He of course is the attorney who argued the landmark Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case.

Marshall went on to become solicitor general and later the first African-American to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. Now, the setting for the play is a 1987 speech Marshall gave at his alma mater, Howard University, where he attended the law school and graduated first in his class. Here's a brief excerpt from that address.

Mr. THURGOOD MARSHALL (Former Justice, U.S. Supreme Court): There are people that tell us today, and there are movements that tell us, tell Negroes, take it easy, man. You made it. No more to worry about, everything is easy. But again I remind you of what Charlie Houston said: You got to be better, boy.

MARTIN: To talk about "Thurgood" I'm joined by Laurence Fishburne who first took on the role in 2008 and George Stevens Jr. who wrote the play. Mr. Stevens is a longtime television and film producer as well. And I thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. LAURENCE FISHBURNE (Actor): You're welcome.

Mr. GEORGE STEVENS JR. (Playwright, "Thurgood"; Television and Film Producer): Thank you.

MARTIN: Mr. Stevens, I'm going to start with you because you would probably have a memory of when Brown was decided. And do you remember what you thought or how it was discussed in your household or any of that?

Mr. STEVENS, JR.: You know, I remember I was in the Air Force at the time in Florida. And I'm kind of embarrassed to say that it didn't have that big an impact on me. You know, it was just kind of news. And, you know, the dimension of it became clear to me later. That's an honest answer.

MARTIN: Well, we appreciate that. Why did you choose to write this play? Why this project?

Mr. STEVENS, JR.: Well, Thurgood Marshall, who was a man of heroic imagination, when you think 100 years after slavery in the '50s, there was still rampant segregation and discrimination. And this man, then a young lawyer, believed that he could use the law to change this imbedded injustice, and he did it. And I thought that was a life worth exploring.

MARTIN: And Mr. Fishburne, you've said, I've heard you say that before that you didn't really know that much about Thurgood Marshall before you took on this project.

Mr. FISHBURNE: I didn't even know he was from Baltimore.

MARTIN: Really? Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FISHBURNE: I knew very little. I mean, I was born in '61, he was appointed in '67, so he was just always a Supreme Court justice. I had no knowledge that he argued Brown. I had no knowledge who argued Brown. I knew that it was this landmark case. And I knew what it symbolized, but I had no idea about what it took to get there and what the monumental effect of such a decision was. So what's great about the play is that it's Thurgood coming out and saying, let me tell you the story of my life.

And in so doing, he gives you a window into some very, very important moments in our country's history, you know, going back to, I guess, 1890 and coming all the way up to 1990. There's about 100 years of really, really amazing history contextualized in his life as he lived it that really affected all of our lives. And it's a great evening. It's a great lesson, but it's also this wonderful man that you get to spend some time with who's like your favorite uncle sitting with you on the back porch, sipping his drink and regaling you with his stories, which you've heard a hundred times, but they only get richer every time you hear them.

MARTIN: What's your favorite line in the play?

Mr. FISHBURNE: A favorite. I'll give you a favorite. I won't say, I can't commit to just having just one. But I learned something from Langston, one person can make a difference.

Mr. STEVENS, JR.: Good choice. And Thurgood went to college with Langston Hughes and that was the reference.

Mr. FISHBURNE: Yeah.

Mr. STEVENS, JR.: How amazing that these two extraordinary people were at a small college together at the time.

MARTIN: You know, you got to know this man very well in the course of working on this play. And I think one of the things that people appreciate about it is that you do get the sense of him as a man, as opposed to this icon in the black robe kind of at a distance. But is there anything you didnt like about him?

Mr. STEVENS, JR.: About Thurgood?

MARTIN: Thurgood, yeah. Is there anything that you'd say, oh, man, he's getting on my nerves?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STEVENS, JR.: Not really. And we took care not to make this what they call a hagiography because thats not going to be interesting to the audience. And there's this thing in drama called feet of clay. You know, where you show the weaknesses in the character and we didnt hesitate to incorporate some of that.

But I must say I had to work at it because it didnt come easily, because he really was such an admirable person. And what makes the play possible is that Thurgood Marshall had a gift for narrative. All through his life he would tell stories. He would live life and then find a way of making it amusing. And he did it with incredible humor.

People come to this play in part because they want to see Laurence and in part because they think it's going to be good for them - it's about civil rights. And what the joy of it is, is that it's so funny and it's so entertaining.

I was going through a notebook yesterday and the little rules that I had. And I just found this one line that said: Information is our enemy.

Mr. FISHBURNE: Ah.

Mr. STEVENS, JR.: You know, that there's this tendency that you want to tell them and get all that information out. And we've worked very hard to dramatize everything that you dont feel that Thurgood Marshall - in the person of Laurence - is up there giving you a history lesson.

MARTIN: So it's not eat-your-peas-it's-good-for-you theater.

Mr. STEVENS, JR.: Not at all. Not at all.

MARTIN: Sure. Mr. Fishburne, though I do want to ask you about that, that you have some experience playing characters that are not, how shall we say, as beloved as others.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Im thinking of Ike Turner in "Whats Love Got to Do With It."

Mr. FISHBURNE: Yes, I have a history of villainy.

MARTIN: Villainy. But there is something to playing someone who is a beloved historical figure about whom people want to think well. And I just wondered was there a trick to you for keeping it human? This is a person we're talking to, and watching and living with, not just this icon in the road...

Mr. FISHBURNE: Right.

MARTIN: ...who comes down and speaks to us and tells us things.

Mr. FISHBURNE: Right. No, the fact is that Thurgood was a raconteur of like the highest order - like the highest order. I wish I could tell stories as well as I know he told stories. There's a kind of wisdom that he's able to impart through the telling of these stories. It's very - it's like I say, it's the back porch wisdom thing. Like, I keep going back to that because thats really what it is.

So you never get the sense that you're dealing with some big iconic guy. When the play begins, he comes out and he kind of looks at the audience, and then...

(Soundbite of a clap)

Mr. FISHBURNE: ...he gets right to it. Because he was very direct evidently. He was a very direct man. He starts talking and within, I would say - I dont know - like less than a minute, he let's you know that we're here and we're all going to have a good time.

Now, you might learn something on the way, which is fine, take that with you. But first and foremost, we're here to have a good time.

Mr. STEVENS, JR.: And what are his first words?

Mr. FISHBURNE: Well, we might as well get right to it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Did he say that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Did he say that?

Mr. STEVENS, JR.: He does now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Im speaking with Laurence Fishburne and George Stevens, Jr. We're talking about the play "Thurgood." Mr. Fishburne stars in the play. George Stevens, Jr. wrote it. It's about the life of Thurgood Marshall.

Now, you know, Mr. Fishburne, you started this role in 2008 when Barack Obama was running for president.

Mr. FISHBURNE: Yes.

MARTIN: Now you're performing it just a few blocks from where he lived.

Mr. FISHBURNE: I know.

MARTIN: I just wanted to ask if that has any special reference...

Mr. FISHBURNE: Hugely exciting for me to be playing this play in D.C. with Obama as our sitting president, a stone's throw from the Supreme Court. You know, we're in Marshall's backyard. We're where he did his most important work.

Mr. STEVENS, JR.: And you could say that Barack Obama would not be president were it not for Thurgood Marshall.

Mr. FISHBURNE: Were it not for Thurgood Marshall.

Mr. STEVENS, JR.: And actually the first time I met Obama in 2003, it was a fundraiser. He was running for the Senate and I was a little early. It was at Vernon Jordan's house. And I went into this room and there he was. And I didnt know much about him and we talked. And he kind of said what are you doing and I said, well, and I told him I was writing this play.

And I remember, this concentration he has on whomever he's talking to. And the night the play opened in New York, Dottie - the woman who works with me so effectively - said you should call the office and check your messages. So I called and there was this voice said: I know your play is opening tonight and I wish you all kinds of success. And he said I think you know I'd be there if I wasnt running for president.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Has he seen it?

Mr. STEVENS, JR.: We hope - no, he has not.

Mr. FISHBURNE: No, he hasnt. He was actually very busy when we were running in New York.

MARTIN: Well, how about? But I do want to ask Mr. Stevens - Im going to ask you this, too, Mr. Fishburne. I do want to ask you about what the lessons of this play might be now and for people who are viewing it now. Because there are different views about the role of history in our current life.

There's the saying that those who dont know their history are doomed to repeat it. But on the other hand, there are those who really feel we spend too much time picking at racial sores.

Mr. STEVENS, JR.: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FISHBURNE: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And that some of these issues are really best not discussed. And so I wanted to ask is there a particular importance of this play? Or do you think it's just simply a good and enriching evening with a very fine actor at the helm? What are your thoughts about that?

Mr. STEVENS, JR.: I dont write political plays or to make a point. But so many African-Americans whove come to see the play - people in their 40's and 50's -and brought their children, tell me how important it is for them to have the children see and understand the times that existed and how one man did make a difference.

MARTIN: What do you think about that, Mr. Fishburne?

Mr. FISHBURNE: I think it's incredibly important, particularly the way that it's delivered. The history that you get during the course of the evening is sometimes hard to take when we're picking at the racial sores, as you said. But Thurgood doesnt pick at them. He doesnt pick at racial sores. He just kind of tells you how it was. And he talks about this is a system that existed and this is what we did to dismantle it, because it was morally wrong.

Okay. Next. And we all have a responsibility when we see something in our country that exists that is morally wrong, we all have a responsibility to try and change it.

MARTIN: Do you have anyone in mind who you particularly hope will come to see this?

Mr. FISHBURNE: Well, of course, himself. We'd love to see Michelle and Barack and their children, of course, because it would be a great honor to perform this for them, quite frankly.

MARTIN: Mr. Stevens, I'm going to press you on this point about who you would to see this play because youre saying that you dont write political plays, and I certainly take your point in that, and youre saying this is important for African-Americans to see. But they are not the only people for whom this history was meaningful, right? Do you think?

Mr. STEVENS, JR.: Oh, I think its meaningful for everyone. And it's just not comfortable for me to try and define...

MARTIN: Is that how you think?

Mr. STEVENS, JR.: ...who should come to see it, but in New York we had such a varied audience.

Mr. FISHBURNE: It's amazing the audience.

Mr. STEVENS, JR.: And it was just night after night. And it was a wonderfully mixed audience. And there was something about that that pleases me because basically that's what Thurgood Marshall worked for in his life...

FISHBURNE: Right.

Mr. STEVENS, JR.: ...was that everybody would have opportunity and be together. And, you know, we had a great time in New York, didnt we Laurence?

Mr. FISHBURNE: It was amazing because, you know, what George is saying is absolutely true. I've played the Broadway stage. My debut was in '92 with an August Wilson play, and then I went back and I did this funny little farce. This thing called "The Lion in Winter" with Stockard Channing and then "Thurgood." And "Thurgood's," you know, the most diverse audiences for a Broadway house that I have ever seen. So many lawyers, also.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FISHBURNE: That was the other thing and I dont know how I missed that, but I did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: This is Washington. I'm sure there will be lawyers in abundance. I want ask you because I know that you are a parent and I am interested and curious to think if your children - I know you have a daughter. I dont know, others? Others? I know you have a little one.

Mr. FISHBURNE: And I have a son and two daughters.

MARTIN: A son and two daughters. And I know - I've heard you say that you hope this is a role that you can return to.

Mr. FISHBURNE: Yes.

MARTIN: Because you are quite a bit younger than Justice Marshall was at the time that this play is set.

Mr. FISHBURNE: Oh yes. Yes. I'm actually the age - I'm the age now that Thurgood was when he argued Brown.

MARTIN: Which is amazing.

Mr. FISHBURNE: Yeah.

MARTIN: But I am wondering if you return to this role five years from now, 10 years from now, how your children will see it. Will they have any idea of what youre talking about?

Mr. FISHBURNE: Well, one of them certainly will because his name is Langston, so he'll get it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FISHBURNE: My daughter, Montana, will be very interesting to see how she responds to it. She's 18 now. My baby, Delilah, she's going to be three.

MARTIN: She will grow up in a country in which there has been an African-American president. Set in the...

Mr. FISHBURNE: She will grow up in a country where the first lady looks like her.

MARTIN: Well, very different. We should come back and have this conversation in five years and see.

Mr. FISHBURNE: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And finally, before I let you go, I think I'd be remiss if I didnt ask about your role on "CSI," of course, its a top rated drama.

Mr. FISHBURNE: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: You replaced the lead of the successful network drama that had been on the air for a decade. You play investigator Ray Langston on "CSI." And one of the reasons I'm raising this is that we were trying to think of other primetime dramas with, forgive me, I dont mean to put you in a box...

Mr. FISHBURNE: That's okay.

MARTIN: ...with an African-American lead.

Mr. FISHBURNE: Right.

MARTIN: And we were having difficulty. And I just wonder what - does that mean anything?

Mr. FISHBURNE: It means there's not enough yet. There's not enough will yet I guess, to make that normal. But all we can do is build it. All we can do is build it. So that's what I'm trying to do by saying yes and by showing up, you know, and then coming to D.C. and doing my real job.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Mr. Stevens, if I could have a final thought from you? I know youre uncomfortable with the question of who should come, but are you comfortable with the question of what you would like us to take away from an evening with your "Thurgood?"

Mr. STEVENS, JR.: You know, I'd love to leave it to the audience. My father, the great film director George Stevens, who I worked with and learned storytelling in the editing room of "Shane," the most important thing I learned from him was respect for the audience. And I think its the respect for the audience that wants me to say come and see it and take away what's there for you.

Mr. FISHBURNE: Yeah. Absolutely.

MARTIN: George Stevens, Jr. is the author of the play "Thurgood," about the life of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. It opens at the Kennedy Center on June 1st. Actor Laurence Fishburne stars in the production. They were both kind enough to join us here at the Kennedy Center.

Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. FISHBURNE: Youre welcome.

Mr. STEVENS, JR.: Great. Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. Im Michel Martin and youve been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Lets talk more tomorrow.

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