Thurgood debuts tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern.

There’s a strange creative pedigree behind Thurgood, the one-man play told from the perspective of Supreme Court Justice and civil rights pioneer Thurgood Marshall, which netted star Laurence Fishburne a Tony nomination. Its writer and director are father-son duo George and Michael Stevens, a tandem who’ve primarily overseen sleepy Kennedy Center Honors and gushing AFI Lifetime Achievement Award specials. Thurgood’s producer, Bill Haber, is best known for helming dubious film and TV output such as Rizzoli & Isles and Sky Captain and the World of
Tomorrow
.

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HBO’s broadcast of Thurgood was, apropos of both the aforementioned crew history and Marshall’s own life story, filmed not during its 2008 run on Broadway, but while performed last June at Washington D.C.’s said Kennedy Center. And at times, especially without the theater’s commanding intimacy, its staging does come across as wincingly patriotic.

The good news is Fishburne dignifies its hour and 45-minute runtime and any awkwardly penned digressions almost without pause. It’s evident that this is his role of a lifetime, a chance to channel something bigger than himself through his occupation, which is a rare opportunity indeed. And he earns every last echo of the standing ovation he receives after exiting left, particularly for deferring applause up until that point for Marshall’s accomplishments, not his own acting. (Well, there was one moment where he seemed to be soaking it in, but hey, it was probably pretty overwhelming stuff.)

Thurgood begins with its sole cast member orating as the elder Marshall, raspy voiced and deliberately motoring about the stage, which is mostly spare aside from oak furniture and a pitcher of water. After those opening greetings, Fishburne suddenly becomes looser and more lithe, as the story harkens back to his childhood in Maryland. And for the majority of its ensuing duration, he remains a magnetic and charming presence, showing unexpected sides of Marshall as a charismatic ladies man and self-deprecating student of the law.

It’s hard to know how rooted this all is in the groundbreaking Brown v. Board of Education litigator’s true personality, but under Fishburne’s jurisdiction and his alone, the portrayal is respectfully distant from the sort of hagiographic fantasy often on display in theatrical biopics like, say, I’m Not There. The Marshall we come to know in Thurgood speaks powerfully about the sheer common sense of social and racial equality, yet also intones a cockier familiarity while taking drags off a cigarette, recounting drunken nights and gloating over youthful promiscuity. It’s the ease and reassurance with which Fishburne lets you into Stevens’ narrative that makes frequent, elegiac monologues about landmark court cases, instances of abhorrent prejudice, and declarations of Marshall’s lifelong commitment to usurping hateful Constitutional misinterpretations so riveting.

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Inevitably, some of the cues that we’re shifting time periods or approaching a historic anecdote are introduced with heavy-handed changes in lighting and score (were those swelling orchestrations dubbed in just for HBO? Anyone know?), which might be necessary stage devices and reprieves for Fishburne but are a bit distracting when one's accustomed to the generally continuous flow of TV. Fortunately, and thanks almost exclusively to the man under those spotlights, there’s enough uninterrupted natural drama here to bridge the mediums. And to Fishburne’s enormous credit,
Thurgood is, chiefly, a humbling and timely reminder of the influence that one individual can have on our freedoms. It's also an explicit and jolting imploring to empower ourselves with the notion that law, in its purest distillation, exists to protect and congregate Americans, not marginalize and divide them.

Stray Observations

  • Very odd watching this mere days after moving from New York to the Washington/Maryland area. No further profundity there, but it did make me feel that much closer to it.
  • Loved that story about his Jewish boss who stood up for him against the racist cops.
  • Very cool to get more personal insight on figures like Langston Hughes and Charlie Houston.
  • Not all the humor invoked a sense of obligation to laugh as if I were sitting 50 feet from Fishburne, but the jokes about sleeping with white politicians’ wives had me guffawing and blushing a bit.
  • Anyone else think of Tom Petty immediately when he uttered the words, “Damn the Torpedos”?
  • And was I the only one who needed a few minutes to shake the image of Furious Styles cradling silver meditation balls in his hands?
  • Kudos to Fishburne for not missing a beat or breaking character when addressing late arrivers.
  • May 17, 1954 not being as ubiquitous as other American historical moments is probably as good a testament as any to this play's impetus.
  • •Man, those Stevenses (they are white, though that really is neither here nor there as you watch) are lucky they could write dialogue requiring a black man to laugh off segregation-era, blacks-only balconies being known as “Crowe’s Nests” and get away with it. Lucky to have cast Fishburne that is.

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