Portland Center Stage Rent Portland Oregon

DramaWatch: ‘Thurgood’ and the inherent drama of We the People

Lester Purry's fine solo performance as the first Black member of the Supreme Court finds a fitting tension in the Constitution itself.

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These days – sometimes – almost – they are pop-culture figures. Perhaps not stars, quite, but images of success and power, as well as canvases for the hopes and fears of a nation; projected upon, if likely not dreamed about.

“The Supremes,” we call them collectively, or “SCOTUS,” if we’re the wonkish sort. It is, of course, the job of a lifetime.

It might seem natural, then, to put one of these rare lifetimes on stage, as George Stephens, Jr. does with the play Thurgood, on the boards at Portland Playhouse through Feb. 27, about the late Justice Thurgood Marshall. After all, Marshall would have been a major figure in the history of the United States even if he’d not been the first Black appointed to the high court, having previously won one of the 20th century’s most pivotal cases before the court, the 1954 civil rights landmark Brown v. Board of Education. If Ruth Bader Ginsburg can inspire everything from memes to movies, opera to bobblehead dolls, surely there’s a drama to be had from Marshall.

So, natural then. But not necessarily easy. 

Lester Purry as Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Photo: Shawnte Sims

The Brown case has human stakes galore, but it already had been dramatized in a 1991 TV mini-series, with Sidney Poitier as Marshall. Stevens set out after something of wider scope, with the sweep of both history and biography. The idea is to let Marshall tell his own life story, directly to the audience, and the conceit, or let’s say the vehicle, for this is a late-in-life speech – somewhere between valedictory and forensic rhetoric – at the Howard University School of Law, where Marshall studied after being denied the right to apply at his segregated hometown school, the University of Maryland.

OK, so we’re all set. And as we sit down to enjoy the Portland Playhouse production, directed by Lou Bellamy and starring Lester Purry (who teamed here in 2018 for a fine run of August Wilson’s Fences), we seem in good hands. Vicki Smith’s simple scenic design (a long conference table, formal chairs, tabletop lectern) signals gravitas but not ostentation. Purry’s voice is molasses-rich as his Marshall – dignified but easygoing, charming, even a little mischievous  – begins to tell us of his upbringing in Baltimore, just north of, as he puts it, “the Smith & Wesson line.”

There’s powerful material here, about the everyday life of Blacks in the segregated North, about the steely determination and grace required for any hope of advancement, about Marshall’s own pleasure-seeking character (“I had already decided to be a dentist, and lift nothing heavier than a poker chip”) and its slow turn to focus on justice. Both Bellamy and Purry have great command of all this; it feels well-paced, full-blooded and important. Purry presents Marshall as the history maker you’d most want to have a whiskey with, and he subtly adjust his gait, his accent, his manner to the age and mood of Marshall at a given moment, or to one of the acquaintances Marshall quotes.

And yet, it’s just one man talking at us, regaling us with his trials and triumphs. Where can the dramatic conflict and character progression come from? What’s here to make it feel like not just a speech but a play?

Ah, yes. There it is, not hiding in plain sight but simply so big and foundational that it might take awhile to see it for what it really is: Marshall’s flawed but brilliant scene partner, the U.S. Constitution. 

What puts the themes of Marshall’s life and work in such striking relief throughout this show is Rasean Davonté Johnson’s projection design (dovetailing with scrupulous lighting by Daniel Meeker), which shows the evocative parchment and ink of the Constitution as the essential backdrop to the story. It’s especially effective in moments of poignant layering, as when, for instance, Marshall talks of watching Blacks indiscriminately (if that’s the word) hauled into a police station; an image of jail-cell doors slamming shut moves across the still prominent words, “We the People.”

Early in the speech, Marshall launches into an explanation of Plessy v. Ferguson, the notorious 1896 Supreme Court decision that upheld Jim Crow segregation in public services with the spurious “separate but equal” doctrine. That makes sense if we imagine Marshall speaking to a room full of law students, but over the course of the play we recognize the Plessy decision, and the racial attitudes behind it, as Marshall’s white whale, the beast he spends his life’s energy battling. That battle gives this play a spine of tension that keeps us engaged even after the victory in Brown v. Board shunts the Plessy precedent aside. The work of protecting “We the People” is ongoing.

And even if Thurgood is one man recounting his successes, those victories aren’t just Marshall’s; they belong to – and enlarge – all Americans. Us. You know – We the People. 

Opening

Corrib Theatre’s “Maz & Bricks,” as illustrated by Jan Baross.

Corrib Theatre continues to bring Irish playwrights – and of late, especially Irish women playwrights – to the stage, this time with Maz & Bricks by Eva O’Connor. Described by The New York Times as “a rom-com caper wrapped in an argument for abortion rights,” the story is set in the run-up to a 2018 referendum on abortion rights in Ireland. Maz, a defensive, sarcastic young protester, boards a tram en route to a pro-choice march and encounters the voluble Bricks. As TheArtsReview.com put it, “​​the only thing they have in common is damage.” Sounds ripe for both personal revelations and social progress. Eliza Frakes and Ken Yoshikawa star, directed by Melody Erfani.

“While the characters in this play are all young teens, its primary audience is adults.” So says Michaela Jeffery on the New Play Exchange website, in a playwright’s note for WROL. (Without Rule of Law), which the site describes as “Judy Blume meets Rambo. And surely, after surviving 2020, whether you’re 14 or 40 you might relate to a group of friends “committed to preparing for survival in the post-collapse society they anticipate inheriting.” This sounds like rich material for Oregon Children’s Theatre’s Young Professionals company, especially with direction from the highly esteemed stage veteran Andrea White. (OCT recommends the show for ages 13 and older.)

Sponsor
Portland Center Stage Rent Portland Oregon

Closing

Time runs out Sunday on Experience Theatre Project’s century-hopping experiment The Great Gatsby’s Daisy – an adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel in an immersive Roaring Twenties staging and with a revisionist undercurrent of racial politics; while Broadway Rose’s jukebox musical Honky Tonk Laundry folds up its Wranglers that day as well.

Second-hand news

Of course, given our druthers, we’d rather have Stephen Sondheim still alive and working his genius, creating more marvelous musical theater. But one small consolation that follows from his death last November is that we’ve had a stream of fresh tidbits – not just fond remembrances and laudatory analysis from those who knew him and/or his work, but pieces of his own perspective. Such as in a piece by D.T. Max for The New Yorker, drawn from a set of interviews with Sondheim late in the composer’s life. 

At first, the article is interesting mostly in providing a look at how frustrating the creative process can be even for such an era-defining master. But the deeper the conversation delves into the details of writing, the more absorbing it becomes: (T)he point is, any art is a matter of a hundred thousand little decisions you make,” Sondheim tells Max. “And that’s called technique: the principle behind the decisions.”

The flattened stage

Then, there are the kinds of songs that Mr. Sondheim did not write.

Access the YouTube video here.

Best line I read this week

“Thinking now of how complex simplicity is, perhaps we have an answer (though I do not remember previously posing any question). Before the buzzing, blooming abundance of every day, facing the vast regions of ocean and the seemingly limitless stretch of empty space; or – instead – wincing at the news in the daily papers (you had not thought the world – as wide as earth, water, and air are – could contain so much crime, such immense confusion, this daunting amount of pain); or – instead – reading the novels of Henry James and James Joyce and Melville and Mann, or living in Proust or traveling in Tolstoy, you are again impressed by immensity, by the plethora of fact, by the static of statistics and the sheer din of data, by the interrelation of everything, by twists and turns and accumulations, as in this sentence going its endless way; yet as one proceeds in science, as one proceeds through any complex esthetic surface, as one proceeds, the numerous subside in the direction of the few (the Gordian knot is made, it turns out, of a single string), the power of number grasps vastness as though each Milky Way were the sneeze of a cicada; so that slowly perhaps, steadily certainly, simplicity reasserts itself. The simple sentence is achieved.”

— from the essay “Simplicities,” by William H. Gass

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

Editor

Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.

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