DAVID KWIATKOWSKI – STAFF WRITER
Thurgood Marshall was the first Black justice to serve on the Supreme Court, and was a key figure in cases like Brown v. Board of Education — but that is the extent that many know about the monumental figure in the civil rights movement.
Aiming to change that is Chautauqua Theater Company’s one-man show, Thurgood, which continues its run at 4 p.m. Aug. 17 at the Performance Pavilion on Pratt.
Starring Brian Marable as Marshall, the show chronicles Marshall’s life before and after being appointed to the highest court in the United States. Director Steve H. Broadnax III was going to direct this production at the Cleveland Play House in 2020, but the outbreak of COVID-19 halted all theater productions everywhere.
Broadnax received the opportunity from Sarah Clare Corporandy to direct Thurgood with CTC. He had previously directed a production of Detroit ’67 with CTC Associate Artistic Director Stori Ayers, who starred in it as a CTC Guest Artist.
“The quality of the work here (is beautiful),” Broadnax said. “The history that (Chautauqua) has, and the people who have come through here — I like the artists that they surround you with, and it’s just a beautiful ground. What’s a better way to spend your summer, doing what you love with high-caliber artists and a very appreciative audience?”
Broadnax also directed Ayers in the original production of Blood at the Root at Penn State University. Ayers went on to direct the play at the beginning of this season at CTC.
“To see someone who was one of my (master of fine arts) acting graduate students to just take off the way she is done,” Broadnax said, “not only directing Blood at the Root, but now she’s building that relationship with (playwright) Dominique (Morisseau) because that relationship has really (grown), … that’s a success story. You bring a professional in with students, and then that relationship gets built, which leads and builds to professional work and relationships.”
As for Thurgood, Broadnax would not have had anyone play the role of Marshall other than Marable.
“Brian (Marable) is one of the best actors I’ve ever worked with,” Broadnax said. “As a director, I’m always trying to create an environment or a space that feels like you can take risks, that we trust each other, that the environment is conducive of creativity. He and I have a great relationship person-to-person and as artists.”
Everyone involved in the production of Thurgood has learned things about him that they did not learn in school.
“We talked about Dr. Martin Luther King, we talked about these other activists, but the law was the thing that changed it all,” Broadnax said. “Without the law changing, things can perpetuate. (Marshall said) you use the law as a weapon. I knew he was a Black man on the Supreme Court. That’s pretty much the depth of my understanding of him from the education I have. … I just don’t think people know how much our everyday lives are (the way they are) because of the contribution and sacrifice of this man.”
Production Stage Manager Katherine Nelson did not know about Marshall’s fight for education outside of Brown v. Board of Education.
“I didn’t know about the way that he fought for equal wages for his mother who was a school teacher (alongside) other Black schools and teachers,” Nelson said. “We’ve all heard of Brown v. Board of Education, but I hadn’t heard of all of the lesser-known cases.”
Nelson has worked with Marable and Broadnax before, and said she has a great rapport with each.
“It’s been really great to be able to get to know (Broadnax) better and to be able to work more closely with him,” Nelson said. “(I enjoy) seeing his artistic style, the whole process. He keeps saying that the process should be filled with ease and joy, and that’s really what the rehearsal process has been like.”
Broadnax takes the “ease and joy” approach to his work; he realizes that by putting on a play, they should be doing just that: playing. He said he puts his artists first before the project as a whole.
“We’re here to do art, but (artists) are important,” Broadnax said. “I believe that what we do is not rocket science. It is not heart surgery. One of the things when we circle up to start our day, we say ‘play’ all together, to remind us (of this) more childlike nature to explore and to step into other circumstances of our humanity. It’s important that we remember that it is not the discovery of the COVID vaccine. That’s hard work. This right here should be joyful, yet impactful.”
Broadnax believes Thurgood shows the humanity behind a monumental figure in American history and offers a chance for audiences to see themselves within Marshall himself.
“Historical figures become photographs or statues or God-like Superman icons versus human beings,” Broadnax said. “When we can see someone who has flaws, then we too can achieve something great. It doesn’t make it so far away from us. … He was a human being, a man, that went through his own trials, his own disappointments, his own loss, his own adversity, but yet he did great things. I think that could inspire everybody to take up your baton and take up your part to do great.”
Nelson hopes Chautauquans take the new information they gain about Marshall from the show and apply it to recontextualize the narratives they have been told in the classroom.
“I hope that people learn a lot about the pieces of history that they maybe weren’t taught in school or that were glossed over really quickly,” Nelson said. “I hope that people get a chance to learn more of the things that are so integral to where we’ve come from, because I think where we come from helps inform where we’re going.”