The term “hero” gets tossed around so liberally these days that it feels good to be reminded of someone who fits the bill thoroughly — Thurgood Marshall, the subject of a one-man play enjoying a welcome revival at Olney Theatre Center.
Written about a decade ago by George Stevens Jr., “Thurgood” uses a simple theatrical device, an imagined address given by the Baltimore-born Marshall at his alma mater, Howard University, two years before his death in 1993 at age 84.
The script is crisp enough and eventful enough to make you forget about the artificiality of the structure and embrace the experience. Over the course of about 90 minutes, a meaningful portrait emerges of a man seasoned by legal challenges to racial discrimination and rewarded with an appointment to the Supreme Court.
The Olney production stars Brian Anthony Wilson, a veteran of regional stages and such television hits as “The Wire.” He brings a sufficiently imposing physique, sonorous voice and disarming demeanor to the assignment, conveying Marshall’s folksy sense of humor with particular skill. (There were a few minor bumps on opening night, but Wilson showed he is a natural rebounder.)
Presented in Olney’s college-classroom-size Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, the play unfolds smoothly on Paige Hathaway’s straightforward, projection-enhanced set. Walter Dallas, who guided Everyman Theatre’s memorable production of “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” a few years ago, directs “Thurgood” with a sure hand and fine sense of timing. (The piece would be even more effective without an intermission.)
Entering the stage with a cane, Wilson does a persuasive job as the slow-but-still-feisty justice, telling the audience, “Well, we might as well get right down to it.” There’s also a naturalness to Wilson’s handling of the subsequent transitions into portraying the younger Marshall as the memories flow.
Although much of this history is well known, it’s still engrossing to be thrust anew into such incidents as the fight to get a black student to the University of Maryland’s law school, the school that turned down Marshall’s application because it legally could.
Armed with the advice he got from a Howard University teacher — “The law is a weapon, if you know how to use it” — Marshall kept hitting opponents where it hurt, right in the Constitution. Whether advocating for black soldiers in Korea or school children in South Carolina, he was “woke” long before that expression ever surfaced.
Through all of this, Wilson makes sure we get a very human hero, complete with the occasional failing (“What kind of man has a wife dying of cancer and doesn’t know it?”).
The actor keeps things real, even when the script tries a little too hard or when music swells on the soundtrack aiming for effect. He’s particularly telling in the segments of the play dealing with the pivotal Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education.
There is more to Marshall’s life and work than “Thurgood” can hold (Reginald Hudlin’s film “Marshall,” being released this fall, centers on an early-years incident not in the play). But enough is packed in here to do the man justice, and make clear how many things would concern him still.
Stories of the young Marshall land with extra force, as when he relates seeing the mistreatment of black prisoners being hauled into the Northwest Baltimore police station. Or recalling the embarrassment when, with so few public restrooms in his home town for people of color, he didn’t make it home in time one day: “That’s more than an inconvenience. You never forget something like that.”
“Thurgood” may manipulate a little here, get a little disjointed there. It may breeze a little too quickly through some of Marshall’s life or the country’s. But the essence of the man, the crucial importance of him, registers deeply in this production, which underlines his uncommon stature while making him awfully good company, too.
If you go
“Thurgood” runs through Aug. 20 at Olney Theatre Centre, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. Tickets are $55 to $70. Call 301-924-3400, or go to olneytheatre.org.