Davenport lays down the law in New Rep’s ‘Thurgood’


Johnny Lee Davenport as Thurgood Marshall in "Thurgood." Photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures

Johnny Lee Davenport as Thurgood Marshall in “Thurgood.” Photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures

WATERTOWN – There is writing on the stone facade of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. that spoke to the late Thurgood Marshall. The words “Equal Justice Under (the) Law” are highlighted on stage and referred to again and again in the New Repertory Theatre’s production of “Thurgood.”

The words served as a guiding light, a beacon that set the standard for Marshall’s legal career, which spanned 50 years and earned him a reputation as a master litigator and a fighter for civil – and equal – rights.

Performing the role of a towering historical figure requires a performer with the same kind of presence on stage, in this case Johnny Lee Davenport. Director Benny Sato Ambush, who worked with Davenport in such productions as “The Whipping Man,” “Driving Miss Daisy” “Master Harold … and The Boys” no doubt helped Davenport find the essence of Marshall, the humanity behind the iconic civil rights figure.

These type of shows are tricky to construct. They can become one-note episodic timelines – “And then I did this..” It’s a complicated formula. How much should be devoted to the personal life? How much to accomplishments and achievements? How many interesting stories and anecdotes should be included?

With such a wealth of material available, playwright George Stevens Jr.’s work seems to have struck a strong balance between the man and his accomplishments

Thurgood Marshall was the son of a Pullman porter named William Marshall and a school teacher named Norma who made 40 percent less than her white colleagues because she taught in a “separate but equal” black school,

One of William Marshall’s favorite hobbies was to listen to cases at the local courthouse – Thurgood sometimes joined him – before returning home to talk about the lawyers and their arguments with his sons. It was one of Thurgood’s earliest experiences with the law.

Some of the stories Davenport as Thurgood tells are of a young man’s work experiences, the blatant racism of the time that saw him fight after being called a “nigger” on a Baltimore trolley, or exiled with other blacks to the crow’s nest of a movie theater.

He never forgot the howls of black prisoners being brought into a police station in the city as he bided his time after being banished to the “furnace room” of his school.

After attending the Colored High and Training Center in Baltimore, he attended Lincoln College, Howard University Law School, where he had vivid memories of his mentor, Professor Charles Houston.

He also had vivid memories of being rejected by the University of Maryland Law School simply for being black, and later winning a case that gave him sweet revenge against the school.

“Thurgood” is being staged in the intimate Black Box Theatre of the Arsenal Center for the Arts, the home for the three productions in New Rep’s Prophetic Portraits Series. It allows Davenport to interact with audience members just as if he were interacting with students at his alma mater of Howard University, where the play opens in a lecture hall as the recently-retired Marshall looks back on his career.

He asks an audience member to recite the words of the 14th Amendment, which he memorized and treasured and a law on which he based many of of his legal arguments as he rose to fame as the first African-American appointed to the Supreme Court, where he eloquently – and passionately – wrote 322 opinions.

As legal counsel for the NAACP, Marshall spent most of his early years as a lawyer trying to overturn Plessy vs. Ferguson, a 1896 Supreme Court decision that upheld state racial segregation laws for public facilities under the doctrine of “separate but equal.”

It wasn’t until May 17, 1954, when the Supreme Court, swayed by Marshall’s passionate – and logical — arguments, unanimously declared that “separate but equal” schools were unconstitutional in the landmark case of Brown vs. The Board of Education.

There were bumps along the road, including threats against his life and the death of first wife Buster at the age of 44. His subsequent marriage to second wife Cecilia and their sons Thurgood Jr. and John brought him joy.

Even in the face of unremitting racism and discrimination and the yoke that was segregation, Marshall never lost faith that he could use the Constitution itself to further the cause of African-Americans.

Thanks to the efforts of its principals – most notably Davenport – “Thurgood,” which clocks in just under two hours with no intermission, works on all levels: as excellent entertainment, a theatrical tour de force by an accomplished performer, and as a history lesson that teaches us things we as Americans should never forget.

The New Repertory Theatre production of George Stevens Jr.’s “Thurgood.” Directed By Benny Sato Ambush. Scenic design by Ryan Bates. Lighting design by Bridget K. Doyle. Incidental music and sound design by Dewey Dellay. In the Black Box Theatre in the Arsenal Center for the Arts through Feb. 5. newrep.org.