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OPINION: Rousing ‘Thurgood’ continues theatrical run

March 28, 2013
By SARAH REED - Theater critic for Weekender , The Herald-Star

PITTSBURGH - A respectfully expectant hush encompassed the auditorium of Pittsburgh's O'Reilly Theater as a soft announcement proclaims the forthcoming arrival of the gathering's guest speaker.

Within moments, a serious and highly magnetic elderly man enters through a side door, authoritatively holding a black leather briefcase and supported by a wooden cane aiding his stiff right leg. Wasting no time the man, taking his stance behind the lectern atop a table in the center of the hall's scuffed wooden floor, begins, "My weapon is the law." The audience is now in the presence of America's first African-American Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, who is lecturing to the spectators in the law school auditorium of his college alma mater, Howard University in Washington, D.C. During the following hour and a half, the native Baltimorean invokes awe in his listeners through a plethora of personal stories detailing his early struggles within a white supremacist world and his indomitable court battles to secure equality for African-Americans. Intense courage and resolve surge endlessly from the production's sole actor and veteran "Thurgood" performer Montae Russell.

Although Russell creates an admirably powerful characterization of Thurgood Marshall, he does not always fully embody the justice's connection to the various people and events that he describes, leaving an occasional distancing sense of hollowness. Russell does, however, mange to skillfully display a number of broad emotions throughout the drama. When Marshall awaits the final hearing of the Brown vs. Board of Education case, Russell conveys a stirring amount of anxious anticipation, and the flood of complete rapturous relief that spreads across his face when Marshall learns that the self-same case, which argues the issue of segregated schooling, has been settled in his favor, beautifully exemplifies the man's elatedness for an aggressively-achieved victory. Russell's conveyance of Marshall's life experiences is also mingled with satisfying humor. Russell's delivery of Marshall's reminiscences of such memories as his young school days, many of which were spent studying the 14th Amendment in his school's furnace room as a form of punishment for his unruly behavior, bring a wonderful sense of humanity to his portrayal. The Supreme Court justice's stories are also vividly portrayed through Russell's ability to voice and physically create the many colorful people who had come through Marshall's life, such as his self-defense-advocating father, his feisty first wife known affectionately as "Buster" for some of her particularly prominent physical attributes, and the tough-voiced General Douglas MacArthur. Russell's boundless energy when switching between Justice Marshall's spry younger self and the Justice in his older and wiser season of life also creates fascinating aspects within his portrayal.

Black-and-white photograph projections of the real people who made impressions upon Marshall's life, and the slight connotations of changing locale, appear occasionally on the open sections of the back wall of the set as well as in the form of sound effects, enriching the production with a further tangible historical touch and realistic sense. Playwright George Stevens Jr.'s dramatic celebration of an American marvel expresses a bounty of engaging human emotions while imparting impacting historical knowledge, but most attractive is "Thurgood's" ability to arouse inspiration and admiration within the hearts of those who have the opportunity to assemble to hear the words of Thurgood Marshall, who ends his lecture April 7.

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