It's a shame that Black History Month doesn't come around more than once a year -- especially when it brings with it work this excellent. Thursday, Feb. 24, HBO presents "Thurgood," starring Laurence Fishburne in a role that could define his mature years as an actor.
Based on the Broadway bioplay by George Stevens Jr., the film is from a live performance at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater in Washington, D.C., as Fishburne virtually transforms himself into the late Justice Thurgood Marshall and tells his life story.
Marshall's life in so many ways is the story of the Civil Rights movement, and is in itself one of the great victories in the ongoing struggle for social equality. Fishburne tells the story as Marshall, in first person, with all of the appropriately colorful gusto and conviction of the justice himself.
Beginning with his early days in Baltimore and his harrowing trips to the South, facing the raw hatred of lynch mobs and violent opposition to social integration, Fishburne chronicles Marshall's fight to become a lawyer that eventually led to his filing suit against the University of Maryland School of Law, resulting in the defeat of the state's segregationist education policy. That case, Murray vs. Pearson, helped to pave the way for his career-defining fight as chief counsel for the NAACP, Brown vs. Board of Education, which led to the integration of schools nationwide.
Eventually, President Lyndon B. Johnson would tap Marshall in 1967 to become the nation's first African-American Supreme Court justice.
There's something absolutely riveting about a show like this that goes beyond just the facts and the subject of the play. It's something almost alchemical that relates to the illusion of authority. The challenge for any actor in any production is, of course, to convince the audience that he or she is the person being portrayed.
But the stakes in the one-person historical show are particularly high: The actor has no one to play off of for reaction, typically few if any props, and can rely only on his or her skills, the quality of the script and the personality being portrayed for reference. It takes a masterful talent to pull it off, but when it's done well, the effect is nothing short of transformative.
In the best one-person shows -- such as Hal Holbrook's "Mark Twain Tonight!" and William Gibson's "Golda's Balcony," with Tovah Feldshuh as Golda Meir -- the actor will disappear completely behind the conviction and authority of the voice being heard and the mannerisms seen, to the extent that one has to remind oneself periodically that it's a play that's being presented.
In the case of "Thurgood," Fishburne's performance is at least as transformative as Jamie Foxx's Academy Award-winning turn in "Ray," and possibly more so. He embodies Marshall as a man of dignity, principles and plenty of wit and humor, undoubtedly drawn from Fishburne's own emotions and experiences growing up in an America still not free from the shackles of racial injustice.
Ultimately, we're left with a personal portrait of the man behind the justice that's at times funny, touching, tragic or some combination. It's entertainment based on history that also happens to be historic entertainment. And it shouldn't be missed.
Laurence Fishburne delivers transformative performance in 'Thurgood'
Laurence Fishburne stars in "Thurgood" Thursday on HBO.