In a cool bit of timing, "Thurgood," George Stevens Jr.'s vivid one-actor play about the first African American Supreme Court justice, is in Washington as senators are pondering the nomination of Thurgood Marshall's former law clerk, Elena Kagan, for a seat on the highest bench in the land.
Add in all the talk onstage about interpreting the 14th Amendment and other civil rights cases, and the show exudes a remarkably contemporary feel (Rand Paul might pick up some useful perspectives from it).
The simple set-up for this biographical vehicle introduces us to a retired, still- "disputatious" Thurgood Marshall, who walks out and starts talking about his life, ostensibly to a gathering at his alma mater, Howard University. The format seems quite natural, especially since Laurence Fishburne's extraordinary performance makes it easy to believe you're in the presence of the Baltimore-born lawyer who helped begin to remove the stain of segregation from the nation's soul.
The actor deftly physically transforms himself from an old man with a gravelly voice and a cane into a younger Marshall and back again by the play's end. In the process, Fishburne draws the audience in so closely that people frequently respond to him, as a congregation might to an energetic preacher.
Marshall's years on the Supreme Court don't get much attention, but the story of how he got there is absorbing and uplifting. Leonard Foglia's nimble direction keeps that story moving freshly (although he has Fishburne take off his suit coat and put it on too often). Allen Moyer's minimal set, with a Jasper Johns-like sculptural American flag as backdrop and screen for occasional projections, works well.
In the end, "Thurgood" delivers separate, but equal, pleasures — one from the brilliant acting, the other from the feeling of living through momentous history.
"Thurgood" continues through June 20 at the Kennedy Center. It's sold out; for possible availability call 800-444-1324 or go to kennedy-center.org.