Everybody's been talking about the Supreme Court in the last couple of weeks as the nation responds to the historic June 26 marriage equality ruling confirming same-sex couples' right to tie the knot.
As such, the timing couldn't be more prescient for the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre's production of Thurgood -- a solo show about Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American justice of the Supreme Court. Before that, Marshall was a great civil rights lawyer who represented the the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case that unanimously declared racially segregated public schools unconstitutional.
Long San Francisco’s most prominent African-American theater company, the Lorraine Hansberry has kept a relatively low profile since it vacated its last home at the Post Street Theatre three years ago. The currently-nomadic organization is offering its subscribers “passport seasons” of plays produced by other theaters, such as Marin Theatre Company and American Conservatory Theater (ACT). It also produces occasional homegrown fare including staged readings, holiday shows or one-off events.
Now, the company returns with a full three-week run of Thurgood starring its artistic director, veteran ACT actor Steven Anthony Jones.
In this biographical monologue by George Stevens Jr., Marshall visits his alma mater, Howard University, for a lecture in which he reviews his life and career from the streets of Baltimore to the highest court in the land.
Jones took some time out from rehearsals to talk about the show.
How would you describe Thurgood?
If we’re going to talk in general terms, it is another of those one-man shows in which historical characters talk about their lives. The only reason that’s interesting is because that historical character was so important. I think we have forgotten what a major figure Thurgood Marshall was in the 20th century, in the civil rights movement particularly. The playwright couldn’t have known the storm of events—the emergence of “Black Lives Matter,” the examination of how the police conduct themselves, the fact that we have a black president, the controversy over the death penalty, the taking down of the Confederate flag. All of these things have come together in the news and in American society. And this play, in Thurgood Marshall’s voice, speaks out about all of that stuff. I mean, it’s as though the play were written six months ago.
This production turned out to be pretty timely, with so much excitement around the Supreme Court right now.
I can’t give myself credit for that. I would be lying if I said that I’d anticipated any of it. My initial thought was that this is a really important person historically and it harkens back to his being a leader in the civil rights movement. Race is always a topic. But Marshall and the people who worked with him risked their lives. Some people lost their lives so that we today could live the way that we live. The Supreme Court, Brown v. Board of Education, the Loving case and the marriage equality movement are all game changers. The basis of Marshall’s strategy was the 14th Amendment. The judgment that the Supreme Court handed down on marriage equality was based on the 14th Amendment. I absolutely could never have foreseen that. I didn’t think I’d live to see a black president. For a lot of reasons, I feel like this is an amazing time.
What does this play have to say to the present moment? What could we stand to learn from Marshall’s story?
Marshall went to school with Langston Hughes and he credits Hughes with getting him to give up the party life when they were in college. So he finishes the play with a quote from a Hughes poem: “America never was America to me, and yet I swear this oath--America will be!” I really think that sums it up. Many people will freely admit, in terms of race, income equality and other issues that are important and that are recognized by a broad spectrum of people, there’s a whole lot left to do. For a lot of people, including LGBT and the poor, "America never was America, but America will be," because there are good people with their shoulders to the wheel that are continuing the work that Thurgood Marshall began.
Thurgood runs through July 25, 2015 at the Creativity Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit LHTSF.org.
Funding for KQED Arts is provided by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Support is also provided by Yogen and Peggy Dalal, Diane B. Wilsey, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Helen Sarah Steyer, the William and Gretchen Kimball Fund, and the members of KQED