Through Feb. 26
Performances: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday,
3 p.m. matinees on Saturday and Sunday
506 Main St.
Fort Worth 76102
From the moment he walks onto the stage at the Jubilee Theatre, Selmore Haines III has the audience captured. Though he’s using a cane to help him walk, there is no doubt we are in the presence of one of the strongest figures in judicial history.
Thurgood Marshall leaned on the law for support throughout his life, and it supported him well. It was his greatest weapon in a war he wished he didn’t have to fight. It was the love of his life, though he was married twice. It was his best friend and his worst enemy.
In short, the law was his life. And what a life it was, displayed in magnificent verbal and physical glory by Haines with masterful direction by TCU’s Harry Parker. So powerful is Haines’ voice that one could close their eyes and picture the moments Thurgood experienced on his journey to greatness.
But don’t close your eyes. There is plenty to see. Haines’ facial expressions expertly accompany his words, a major key in this one-man show being much more than simply 90-plus minute review of history. We feel each ounce of joy, each sting of pain, not only when he is speaking as Thurgood, but also when he is magnificently vocalizing other important characters who crossed his path at key times.
And there was plenty of both in Marshall’s life as he rose from a young man who went to college to become a dentist to taking a seat as the first African-American Supreme Court Justice. In between was one of the most significant Supreme Court decisions in history as Marshall, then an attorney, successfully argued and won Brown V. Board of Education in 1954.
The simple set features a long table of about 15 feet with four chairs, a podium, a pitcher of water and a glass from which Haines drinks numerous times throughout. The pauses serve not only to quench his thirst, but also to allow the audience time to absorb clutch moments.
On the back wall of the set is a screen on which historical photos and videos are displayed, including what Marshall and other people mentioned in the show look life in real life. In the upper left-hand corner of the screen are the stars of an American flag, subtly posing the question of where African-Americans stand in the shadow of that flag, a question that continues to resonate.
Most Americans past the age of 40 are likely familiar with Marshall’s story, of how Lyndon B. Johnson, then president of the United States, appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1967. They are also probably somewhat knowledgeable of his legendary work on Brown V. Board of Education, a landmark decision that he’d continue to battle long after the Supreme Court ruled, thanks to stubborn governors who refused to integrate despite the law.
But most people don’t know the behind-the-scenes story of Marshall. They don’t know how, as a young man, he put up with verbal abuse as long as the man he was serving left a $20 tip each time. Who was getting the best of who?
“The second you run out of $20 bills, I’m going to have business with you,” Haines said, raising his fists to show what kind of business.
Those $20 bills the man was leaving as a tip helped pay for Marshall to get through school. In a sense, the racist man was actually helping pay for Marshall’s battle to end racism.
Marshall reflects on his most influential mentors, including legendary poet and jazz artist Langston Hughes and Howard law professor Charles Houston. It was Houston who implanted a message in Marshall’s mind that would serve him well the rest of his life, always go a step farther.
For example, if Houston asked for five briefs to be read, he suggested his students read eight. If he asked for eight, they’d better read 10.
After all, they were African-Americans, he reminded them. Simply doing what is expected, even though doing it better than others, was just not going to be good enough.
There were those who influenced Marshall in a less than positive way as well, nonetheless providing fuel for his fight. He recalls the time he met General Douglas MacArthur, though a legendary war hero to most, not so much when it came to African-American soldiers.
There was attorney John W. Davis, perhaps the most-renowned lawyer this side of Daniel Webster. It was he whom Marshall went up against in the Brown V. Board of Education case. Davis had argued 148 cases before the Supreme Court.
Of course Marshall had a strong relationship with the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. However, they differed greatly when it came to breaking the law to enforce civil rights. Marshall always saw the law as a weapon, one that should be respected in all ways and all times, and if a law isn’t right you use other laws to get it changed.
And there was Buster. His first wife, who would die of cancer in her early 40s, Marshall loved her so, and felt a guilt from her death having been away from her so much during his battle for equality.
He later remarried, and he and Cissy had two children, both sons who would on to greatness of their own. Still, the memory of Buster was at his side as well as he continued his life’s mission.
As one might have guessed, Marshall faced his own death in the face as he battling for equal rights. Listening to him recall being placed in the back of a police car and driven out to a tree with a lynch mob waiting and a rope hanging raises the hair on the back of the neck. It was only because of a last-minute bout with cowardice – or it would be nice to think it was more a case of developed conscience that made them set him free.
But Marshall was much more afraid of what would happen to society were he to give up his fight. Plessy V. Ferguson, which stressed separate but equal facilities, would reign, though the facilities would never be equal – much less the same.
Marshall was driven by the memory of children of different races playing together before school, going their separate ways for school, and then reuniting to play again after school. Why, he wondered, do they have to separate to get the same education, if indeed the education is the same?
Marshall’s way of thinking got through to the most important people. After being appointed to the Federal Appeals Court by John F. Kennedy, he delivered 98 majority opinions, none of which were reversed by the Supreme Court.
He was anti-death penalty, having seen “too many innocent men put to death.” He was for strict gun control, saying “I see no reason private citizens should ever have a pistol or a machine gun.”
And he was unapologetic for it all. He had to be.
“Thurgood” is much more than a piece of history. It is time spent in the skin of a man who continues to influence our world today.
“Thurgood” runs through Feb. 26 at the Jubilee Theatre in Fort Worth.
For more on the show: