Stage preview: Public’s ‘Thurgood’ aims to be intimate look at epic man

Bob Donaldson Montae Russell stars as Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in Pittsburgh Public Theater's one-man play "Thurgood." Mr. Russell has acted in six August Wilson plays at Pittsburgh Public Theater.


By Sharon Eberson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

So much of what Thurgood Marshall accomplished is well-documented: As attorney for the NAACP in 1954, he won the Brown v. Board of Education case, in which the Supreme Court ended racial segregation in public schools. In 1967, he became our first African-American Supreme Court justice. “Thurgood” attempts to give us insights into the man, and to revisit the play today comes with an added obligation to explore the times.

The play is from our recent past, but our present has changed dramatically since it was on Broadway from April to Aug. 17, 2008 — a week before the opening gavel of the Democratic National Convention that gave Barack Obama his first presidential nomination.


“We have a different version of enlightenment now; we have an African-American president. We’re talking about people who were shot when they registered to vote,” Ted Pappas said.

Public’s producing artistic director, who will direct, has brought back Homestead native Montae Russell to portray Justice Marshall. The actor is a longtime interpreter of August Wilson works at Pittsburgh Public Theater, where he’s acted in five plays, beginning in 1989 with “Fences.” Starting in 1995, he spent a decade in the recurring role of Dwight Zadro on the TV series “ER” but kept coming back to the Public and then to Broadway, where in 2001 he played Mister in Wilson’s “King Hedley II.”

“I’m an actor because of theater,” he said in 2006, when he was at the Public for “Gem of the Ocean.” “The theater is calling me back.”

Mr. Pappas has produced shows that included Mr. Russell, but this is the first time they have each other’s undivided attention.

“The play must feel like an intimate conversation about something epic, and that’s what we have been working on in rehearsal,” Mr. Pappas said. “It must be plain-spoken and intimate, yet it must reverberate as a story that matters more than any other, that matters deeply to millions of people. Montae has that quality as an actor because he possesses dignity and warmth in equal measure. He also has dazzling technique, which it needs. … He speaks to us as friends and then he speaks to the Supreme Court of the United States; you have to be able to negotiate those two realities.”

The director has experience working on solo shows: He choreographed an early production of “Herringbone” in New York, then directed two shows about larger-than-life people for the Public: “The Chief,” with Tom Atkins as Art Rooney Sr., and “The Lady With All the Answers,” with Helena Ruoti as Ann Landers. In approaching “Thurgood,” he comes off of directing one of his biggest productions ever, “1776.”

“I leave the ‘Thurgood’ rehearsals more physically tired than I did for the musical because there’s a lot of research and conversation and detail in shaping a big show on one body and one voice,” Mr. Pappas said. “At the same time, it feels extremely focused, because it’s about Montae and his performance. … The easiest part was remembering his name [big laugh] — a big part of ‘1776’ was, what is your name, what is your character’s name and what state are you from?”

Despite the serious nature of the subject, there is humor in Justice Marshall’s life and times, captured originally by Laurence Fishburne in a Tony-nominated performance and an HBO film shot at the Kennedy Center. Mr. Pappas has absolute faith in the accuracy of the work as well; playwright Stevens’ honors include 15 Emmys and the Paul Selvin Award for writing that embodies civil rights and liberties.

A twist for Public is introducing and integrating a high-tech projection system for this production.

“It’s exciting to try something new. It’s like the turntable [used in ‘1776’], it’s like the pool [for ‘Metamorphoses’ in 2009]. Every year we try to add more and more to the Public’s vocabulary,” Mr. Pappas said.

The projections will add a vivid dimension to the story of a man and his times.

“It’s one man, but the play is very big,” he said. “It’s about the 20th century and all of us in America, and our quest for justice and fairness.”

Sharon Eberson: or 412-263-1960.
First Published March 7, 2013 12:00 am