April 30, 2008

Fishburne Brings the Goods to "Thurgood"

Making fun of movie stars who sign up for Broadway shows is something of a blood sport for the theaterati. But over the past few weeks, I think I’ve begun to understand those film actors a little better. If they’re truly talented and if they really care about their craft, how much satisfaction can they get from just cavorting in front of a blue screen, issuing imperious commands, saving the world over and over again as the big blockbuster movies that now dominate Hollywood demand they do?

So it makes sense to me that Professor Xavier of the “X-Men” series and Morpheus of “The Matrix” movies are currently appearing on Broadway. And Patrick Stewart (Xavier) and Laurence Fishburne (Morpheus) are not only nourishing their own creative souls but also treating audiences to superb performances in, respectively, Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Thurgood, the one-man show about the civil rights attorney and the nation’s first black Supreme Court Justice that opened Wednesday night at the Booth Theatre.

Both actors are truly talented and masters of their craft who not only have appeared on Broadway in the past but have been nominated for Tonys. And I’m betting that they’ll be nominated this year too. Fishburne actually won a Tony with his Broadway debut in 1992 as an ex-con in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running. And seven years later, he made a splendid and regal Henry II opposite Stockard Channing’s Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter. Although I confess what I most remember about the latter performance was Fisburne’s stepping out of character to dress down an audience member whose ringing cell phone interrupted an intense scene between the royal pair. Channing seemed taken aback but the audience burst into supportive applause.

Fishburne stays brilliantly in character during Thurgood. The play was written by George Stevens, Jr., the film and TV producer whose credits include the annual “The Kennedy Center Honors” broadcast and the popular “The American Film Institute Life Achievement Awards.” But back in 1991, Stevens also produced, directed and wrote the TV movie “Separate But Equal” about the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that legally ended segregation in the U.S. Sidney Poitier played Marshall, who, as the lead attorney for the NAACP, argued the case before the Court. Stevens has said that his continuing interest in Marshall lead him to write a play, his first, about him.

The resulting 90-minute piece is presented as a lecture that the elderly Justice gives
about his life at his alma mater Howard University. Thurgood trades on Marshall’s reputation as a raconteur and it’s nicely salted with humorous tales. But it still comes off as one of those Ken Burns-style documentaries you might see on PBS or the History Channel, complete with video projections of relevant scenes—a sharecroppers’ shack when he talks about his travels through the segregated south; pretty brown-skinned flappers when he describes meeting his first wife; the steps of the Supreme Court when he recalls his first visit there.

You need a great actor to bring a work like this to anything approaching dramatic life. James Earl Jones leant his commanding presence to the role when the play was originally produced at the Westport Country Playhouse in 2006 but, apparently, opted to do the all-black revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof instead of bringing Thurgood to Broadway. Luckily, the producers persuaded Fishburne to step in. Fishburne, who is only 47, wasn’t even born when the Court handed down the unanimous Brown decision and he has admitted in several interviews (click here to read one he gave New York magazine) that he knew very little about Marshall before accepting the role. But he looks eerily like the Justice and he uses both his acting chops and movie-star charisma to draw the audience into Marshall’s story.

I’ve just finished reading Jeffrey Toobin’s terrific new book “The Nine,” which focuses on recent Supreme Court justices but includes a sizable cameo on Marshall, and so his story wasn’t new to me but I still had a good time.
Like Golda’s Balcony, the one-woman show about the former Israeli Prime Minister that opened in 2003, Thurgood clearly intends to educate as much as entertain. And it does a fairly good job of both. “You learn so much,” I overheard a woman saying as we all made our way out of the theater. But unlike Golda’s Balcony, which starred the stage stalwart Tovah Feldshuh and played 493 performances, Thurgood is scheduled for a limited run that is now set to end on June 22. After that, Fishburne, alas for theater lovers, is heading back to making movies.


Anonymous said...

I don't know about Fishbourne, but Patrick Stewart is one of the world's foremost Shakespearean actors. In fact, all of the Star Trek captains came from heavily classical theatrical backgrounds. So I don't think it's fair to call Stewart a movie-star-gone-theatre.

If you've seen his A Christmas Carol or any of his other productions, it's rather obvious that Stewart is a theatre person first and a movie actor second. That's not to say he's not a great movie actor -- he is! -- but his passion is clearly for the classics and for theatre.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Director, it's not clear if you're the director of one of these shows but either way, I'm really grateful to have someone read this entry, and then take the time to write a comment, so soon after I posted it.

You're absolutely right about the theatrical backgrounds of the Star Trek casts. I'd still argue that more people identify Stewart with his movies than with the stage but the point I hoped to make is that it's great—for them and for us theater lovers—that these great actors are back on Broadway.

I have a feeling that we both agree on that. And I hope you'll keep reading and keep commenting. jan

Esther said...

I'm really looking forward to seeing this next week. It'll be my first one-person show on Broadway. I remember watching Henry Fonda as Clarence Darrow and James Whitmore as Harry Truman on tv when I was growing up and loving those performances. Both actors vividly brought those figures to life.

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Jan, Thanks for your thoughtful examination. I'm really looking forward to seeing both Patrick Stewart and Laurence Fishburne, but especially the latter since the entire show rests on his shoulders. Plus, he's taking on a real-life hero, which can never be an easy undertaking.

Anonymous said...

Read about you in Time,and well..., here we go! I have a one-man show on Louis Armstrong that I just closed at the Baton Rouge resturant on 145th st in Harlem. I teach history at Livingstone college in NC and have performed this play across the US Canada and Edinbough Scotland. The reception in NY was thunderous. Unable to hold over because of my obligation to the College, the actress Jill Lawrence offered her own money to develope a producers show in NYC in june of 08. She said "Danny, the buzz in NY is theirs someone in Harlem playing Louis Armstrong". It's simply one of the best one-man plays in the history of american theatre and I would love for you to attend if possible. The Climax revolves around the day Armstrong sees the story on the Little Rock Nine's girl being spat upon on TV.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Danny, thanks for letting me and the B&M readers know about your show. Do keep us posted about its development as things move along. jan