LOS ANGELES — The first thing you notice is the assured bearing and the deep, authoritative voice (this guy did play Morpheus, after all). Then the judicious observations, the strategic dropping of a timely anecdote, the eyes that calmly take your measure, like a barrister scanning a thick stack of legal briefs.
Laurence Fishburne isn’t a lawyer, but he’s playing one this summer in his one-man show “Thurgood” at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.
Of course, calling Thurgood Marshall a lawyer is a bit like calling Jackie Robinson a ballplayer. Like Robinson, Marshall was not merely a legendary member of a famous nine-man team but a history-making figure in his own right. He made his name nationally as the civil rights attorney who successfully argued the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation case. Then he went on to become the first African American to don the robes of a U.S. Supreme Court justice.
“This cat, he was too important not to play,” Fishburne said during a recent interview, sprawled in a booth at a Beverly Hills cigar club. Elaborating about what drew him to George Stevens Jr.‘s bio-drama, the Oscar-nominated actor and star of CBS’ “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” said he considered it “quite a gift,” not only for the chance to play the towering title role but because of the game-changing events the play encompasses.
“It deals with a law which, whether we recognize it or not, plays a very, very important role in our lives,” he said, referring to the Brown decision, which kicked out one of the props from under the system of racial separatism that prevailed in the U.S. South during the 1950s.
“Thurgood” arrives at the Geffen after successful runs on Broadway, where it earned the 49-year-old actor Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards, and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. There, the audience reportedly included Marshall’s widow, current U.S. Supreme Court justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Chief Justice John Roberts.
Another attendee was Elena Kagan, a former law clerk for Marshall. Now herself a nominee for a seat on the nation’s highest court, Kagan was grilled by senators about her association with the liberal justice at her confirmation hearings last week.
Fishburne’s performance was widely commended in Washington, a city that’s used to judging the theatrical flair of larger-than-life public figures. “The portrayal’s so alive you could claim with some justification that the great man spoke to you,” the Washington Post’s theater critic wrote.
The play’s director, Leonard Foglia, said that Fishburne’s embodiment of Marshall has deepened with each new production. “I think hopefully Laurence Fishburne walks onto the stage and Thurgood Marshall walks off the stage,” Foglia said.
In shaping his performance, Fishburne naturally turned first to the script. He also watched some archival CBS film footage of Marshall.
An unexpected boon was that Fishburne’s father and Marshall had “very similar” speaking styles, sharing a cadence and phraseology that was “easy for me to access,” Fishburne said.
“There’s a thing where he (Marshall) is talking to someone and he says, ‘This young woman has no i-dea what she’s doing here!’ And it’s exactly the way my father would say the word ‘idea.’ Exactly.”
Fishburne also drew on his subject’s well-known talent for charming an audience, whether he was in a federal courtroom or a white, Southern sheriff’s jailhouse. By all accounts, Marshall (1908-93) was a raconteur of the first order, constantly regaling friends and colleagues with well-spun anecdotes and spot-on impersonations.
Fishburne said that the Baltimore-bred Marshall first began honing his oratorical skills in debates with his father, who had a layman’s interest in the law and would take young Thurgood with him to observe local courthouse cases, then discuss them at length at home.
Later, as a young civil rights lawyer, Marshall showed his ability to engage even his adversaries through a canny combination of smarts, straight talk and down-home humor.
“When he was in the South in the ‘50s,” Fishburne said, “defending black people who were being held in jail, he would find whoever the local constable was, the sheriff or whoever, and he would sit down with them after hours over cards and whiskey and say, ‘Now what are we gonna do about this?’ and deal with it very much in that backroom, politic way, and be like, ‘We’ve gotta be men about this now, c’mon now,’ and have people crackin’ up telling blue stories.”
As a child of the tumultuous 1960s, Fishburne said, he was aware of Marshall by deed and reputation. Growing up in Brooklyn, in what he describes as “a really wonderful, liberally, culturally and racially diverse environment,” the Augusta, Ga.-born actor knew about the ongoing civil rights struggle and the achievements of leaders such as Fannie Lou Hamer and Martin Luther King Jr.
What Fishburne hadn’t known, until he read Stevens’ play, was Marshall’s decisive role in the Brown ruling. That decision signaled the beginning of the legal dismantling of segregation. But there remained another, equally important kind of dismantling to do, Fishburne said.
“King was about the spiritual dismantling of it (racism) in our hearts. He opened a place in our hearts where we had to look at it and go, ‘This is wrong, morally wrong.’ He made us ask those questions of ourselves.”
The example of yet another, less-celebrated civil rights crusader, the African-American lawyer Charles Hamilton Houston, also persuaded Fishburne to do the play.
A few years ago, he said, he was reading the script for “Thurgood” while en route to Harvard to receive an award. While there, Fishburne encountered a portrait of Houston, a Harvard alumnus, and attended a dinner at which several academics referred to Houston in conversation.
“So he might as well be calling to me, going, ‘Fish! You gotta do this! Fish, I’m over here, I’m in the room, people got to know!’”
Fishburne said that the cosmos — or, more likely, his intuition — has advised him about other key career moves. It happened when he read the screenplay for “The Matrix,” two years before he’d even met the Wachowski brothers. “I read it, and I was like, ‘This is the most original thing I’ve ever read.’ And I knew I was going to play Morpheus.”
He heard destiny’s call again when he accepted the title role in Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 big-screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Othello.”
“I was thrilled,” Fishburne said, “because I knew that I was going to be the first African American that ever did it” on the big screen.
But on that occasion, the fates conspired in a sinister direction. The movie about the jealous Moor who slays his white wife was released around the time of the uproar over the O.J. Simpson murder trial. “It didn’t help,” Fishburne said, managing a laugh.
And there was the role that sealed Fishburne’s future as an artist, playing a young American soldier baiting Martin Sheen and dancing on a speeding patrol boat to the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam War saga “Apocalypse Now.”
It was, Fishburne said, another “gift.”
“I was so young, I wasn’t fully formed then. I was an actor. It was really something that I was good at, and it was fun, and it was kind of a goof, and I didn’t have to go to school.
“But things crystallized on ‘Apocalypse Now,’ working with (director of photography Vittorio) Storaro, Coppola and (production designer) Dean Tavoularis and that entire team. And listening to them sit around talking about Orson Welles attempting to make the movie 30 years prior, what a huge undertaking it was, how they were attempting to leave something behind them that would live well after they were gone. That that was consciously what they were attempting to do. And that that was the power of art. I thought, ‘Wow, you can do that?! I wanna do that!’”
Fishburne’s “Thurgood” performance may have a shot at that kind of afterlife. The actor wants to tour the show every couple of years, he said, not only for the sheer pleasure of it but “because it’s part of our history that is not going to be unimportant or lose its real value any time soon.”
By understanding Marshall’s accomplishments and the era he lived in, we have a chance to keep dismantling racism “here even more and here even more,” Fishburne said, pointing to his head and his heart, and to keep healing “our wonderful, dysfunctional family: the United States of America.”
Fishburne laughed, then turned serious once more. “Because racism,” he said, “is a family disease.”