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Laurence Fishburne is supremely pleased to perform 'Thurgood' in Washington

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 31, 2010; C01

For an actor alone on a stage, there's pressure -- and then there's PRESSURE.

Laurence Fishburne encountered the italicized variety one evening early in the Broadway run of "Thurgood," the one-man show in which he portrays the larger-than-life Thurgood Marshall, the late lion of the civil rights movement and long a formidable presence on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Staring at him from a prominent seat was Marshall's widow, Cecilia. "She came on her birthday and sat front-row center," Fishburne recalls. It was the sort of fraught theatrical moment that could have ended in joy or tears. Who held more power to validate or undermine Fishburne's efforts to convey the essence of this earthy, self-effacing man of history?

Any lingering insecurity -- though this actor doesn't seem to be hindered by much of that -- was erased when the widow and the performer met face to face. He didn't merely like her reaction; he loved it, and he quotes her winking, irreverent reply with affection: "I'm sorry you're married," she said to him.

Fishburne, who turns 49 in July, is sitting in a reception room adorned with Chinese art, adjacent to the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, in which he and "Thurgood" make their Washington debuts, in a three-week engagement beginning Tuesday night. With a script by George Stevens Jr., longtime producer of the Kennedy Center Honors, the 90-minute play explores Marshall's wit and wisdom, in the form of a talk, augmented with projections and both poignant and funny digressions, to an audience at his alma mater, Howard University School of Law.

The actor is returning to the piece after a two-year hiatus, a resumption of the performance that earned him a Tony nomination in 2008. (He'd won the award in 1992 for his work in August Wilson's "Two Trains Running.") He says it's a particular thrill to bring the show to Washington, where Marshall's career left such a profound impression and where he has long wanted to do a play. The last time he acted in the city was in a room in the bowels of the Kennedy Center, rehearsing scenes for the 1987 movie "Gardens of Stone," which was partly set at Arlington National Cemetery.

"I love being here," says Fishburne, freshly arrived from his home in Los Angeles and wearing sneakers, khakis and a blue linen shirt. "To get to play in the Eisenhower by myself -- playing Thurgood Marshall? What? WHAT? It's bigger than Broadway for me."

At a time when he's in demand in Hollywood -- at the moment, he headlines CBS's "CSI" -- it's a testament to Fishburne's versatility and expansive appetite that he comes back again and again to the stage. After the little matter of those profile-magnifying "Matrix" movies, for instance, he went on the boards with his frequent acting partner, Angela Bassett, in a Pasadena revival of Wilson's "Fences": It was that performance that prompted Stevens and director Leonard Foglia to approach him about playing Marshall. "He's probably the bravest actor I've ever worked with," Foglia says. "He's certainly one of the most skilled. But the bravery is that there is nothing he won't try."

'Wearing the tragic mask'

Fishburne has always been busily dreaming up new paths; back in 1995, he starred in a play of his own creation, "Riff Raff," about drug dealers on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a work that became an off-Broadway hit and was later made into a movie. Even then, he had a sense of humor about the strange interludes in the life of a public person. Back in '95, while I was interviewing him about "Riff Raff" in a midtown Manhattan restaurant, a woman came up to our table, told him her daughter had loved him in "Pulp Fiction," and asked, "Could she have your autograph, Mr. Jackson?"

In the uncomfortable moments that followed, he cordially signed her card, "Samuel L. Jackson." (Recalling the encounter 15 years later, Fishburne says that after the article appeared, Jackson sent him a basket of flowers.)

The more mischievous side of his personality, Fishburne says, is not commonly why he's cast. Which is one reason "Thurgood" appealed to him. "I'm always wearing the tragic mask," he says. "And Thurgood had this incredible sense of humor. He was a terrific raconteur, a champion storyteller. People don't know how funny I can be, and I get to make people laugh all through the show."

Molding the experiences of a historical figure into a solo performance piece depends greatly on finding a personage of multiple dimensions. Marshall, who died in 1993, fits the bill grandly; far more than his years on the court, his rich life as an adversary of the status quo is what makes him so theatrical. The play had started as a project by Stevens several years ago for Sidney Poitier. "Separate but Equal," a 1991 television movie Stevens wrote and directed about the landmark desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education, had featured Poitier as Marshall, who as an NAACP lawyer successfully argued the case before the Supreme Court.

Poitier, then in his mid-70s, got cold feet about memorizing a one-man show, says Stevens, who eventually turned to another titan, James Earl Jones. He performed an early version of "Thurgood" under Foglia's direction in Westport, Conn., but he, too, was forced to withdraw, because of scheduling conflicts.

Doing his homework

Enter Fishburne, who read the script on a trip to Cambridge, Mass., where he was to receive an award at Harvard. It dawned on him how little understanding he'd had of Marshall's biography, or impact. "All I knew was that he was on the Supreme Court -- I had no idea he had anything to do with Brown," the actor says. "I didn't know he was from Baltimore, or that his father was a Pullman car porter; didn't know he went to Lincoln University. My mentor, Roscoe, went there," he adds, a reference to the actor Roscoe Lee Browne, with whom he worked in "Two Trains Running."

He did his homework, but not obsessively. "I went to CBS and watched some of his old interviews and stuff." The objective? "Some of the ways he turns a phrase, for example. The way he would pose an argument. Rhythms, speech patterns." Fishburne found that he did not have to search strenuously to come up with a concept of Marshall, because so much of the character was in the reams of materials Stevens had amassed and endlessly pored over.

"I would have to say 80 to 90 percent is on the page," the actor says of his performance. "Because Thurgood is such a brilliant storyteller." He notes, too, that there's an accessibility to his judicial style that makes him fun to play, because so much of his career involved "telling the story of his own life."

Stevens and Foglia had the task of figuring out how much of that life to show playgoers; ultimately, they decided to try to make "Thurgood" as taut as possible, trimming it to an hour and a half, without an intermission. The dramatist says he had to excise choice anecdotes, including one revealing Marshall's impish nature: how as a justice he would go along when some uninformed, presumptuous visitors to the Supreme Court would get on the elevator after him and call out their floors to him, as if he were its operator.

"We're dealing with race and politics," Foglia says of "Thurgood's" enduring relevance. "Open the newspaper any day. We did this on Broadway when Obama and Clinton were hashing it out [during the Democratic primaries]. And then I realized, there's never a time when this story isn't going to be important." No way could the play's creators have anticipated, for instance, that the Supreme Court nomination of Elena Kagan -- once one of Marshall's clerks -- would be unfolding as the production took up residence in the capital.

Fishburne, for one, endorses the idea that "Thurgood" is a renewable resource. It's far more likely, he says, that he'd remain limber enough in his golden years for Marshall than Morpheus. "I mean, can I be 70 years old and thinking about kung fu kicks? Come on!"

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