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Ensemble’s THURGOOD is a perfect Black History Month treat

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

Thurgood Marshall has been called the “greatest lawyer of the 20th Century,” “Mr. Civil Rights,” and is credited with doing “more than any other American to lift the burden of racism from our society.”    It is only appropriate that his life and judicial story be told during Black History month.  Ensemble is doing exactly that by presenting multi-award winner George Stevens, Jr.’s THURGOOD.

Marshall, who was born in Baltimore, was the great-grandson and grandson of slaves.  Against great odds, including being rejected by the University of Maryland’s law school, he became a lawyer.  He graduated from Howard, an all-black university in Washington, D.C..   After being in private practice, he became active in the National Association for Colored People (NAACP) and went on to plead many cases before the Supreme Court regarding segregation in public schools and universities.   He is best known for pleading and winning Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, the basis for the elimination of the policy of “separate but equal” in public schools.  He won 29 out of the 32 cases he pleaded before the Supreme Court.

He was appointed by John F. Kennedy to a seat on the US Court of Appeals, by Lyndon B. Johnson to be US Solicitor General, and, in 1967, Johnson selected him for a seat on the Supreme Court.  Marshall was the first African American to hold the position.

Steven’s script encapsulates Marshall’s life into a two-act presentation.  We find Greg White in a one-person audience lecture (with the inserted voices of Kirk Brown as Chief Justice Earl  Warren, and Kyle Huff as the Clerk of the Supreme Court).  It is a lesson about a great American, an important Black American, and the foibles of the political system, especially in the prejudiced South.

Ensemble’s production is well staged by director Sarah May.  She succeeds in creating stage business that holds the audience’s attention.  She also choreographs the use of many props to help in creating the reality of the court cases.

May is greatly aided in developing the story by the projections conceived by Ian Hinz, which not only lead the audience to seeing where each scene is set, or of a place that is being referred to, but aids visualization by use of photos of the people that Marshall mentions.  Without these excellent visuals, the illusions and people would not have been as vivid.  This was the best use of electronics that Ensemble has presented in their productions.

In the opening night presentation, White was properly laid back as Marshall, who was noted for his reasoned use of words, and emotional control as he presented his cases.  At times, however, more physical and verbal dynamics would have enlightened the proceedings.  As White becomes acclimated with the script’s words, and the audience’s reactions, he should find himself more comfortable and real.  He must take on the awing “aura” of Marshall, as well as relaying his words.

One audience reaction tool that White needs to take into consideration is the use of “call outs.”  Traditional in many black churches is the congregation verbally reacting to the sermon.  Shouts of “right on,” “uh-huh,” and “tell ‘em brother,” are common in that setting.  The verbalization carries over when individuals get involved in plays or even movies.  Since THURGOOD is a script and subject matter that will attract African Americans, as evidenced by the almost equal numbers of blacks and whites in the Ensemble audience, the “call outs” should aid in adding the heightening of emotions in the play.   White will need to adjust to those and take them as a tribute to his becoming Marshall.  Those not used to “call outs,” will have to learn that the vocalizations show praise for the actor and the message and are not the “bad manners” of breaking-the-silence-tradition which some think of as the protocol of theatre-goers.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  THURGOOD is a well-conceived script, which receives a solid production.  The message is a lesson well needed for black and whites alike. It should be a “must see” for junior and high school students, their parents and grandparents so that the story of the ever present issue of granting civil rights becomes a cause-célèbre and all people are treated with respect and dignity.

THURGOOD runs Thursdays through Sundays through February 22 at Ensemble Theatre, housed in the former  Coventry School, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights.  For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to

Of special interest:  Talkbacks are scheduled after the productions of:  2/1 (Judge C. Ellen Connally, Greg White and Sarah May), 2/8 (Peter Lawson Jones), and 2/15 Subodh Chandra).