DAVID KWIATKOWSKI – STAFF WRITER
This summer, Chautauqua Theater Company opened their season with Dominique Morisseau’s Blood at the Root, directed by Associate Artistic Director Stori Ayers, and are closing the season with the one-man show Thurgood, written by George Stevens Jr.
The show about the first Black Supreme Court Justice concludes its run this weekend, with shows at 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Performance Pavilion on Pratt.
Ayers saw the juxtaposition of Blood at the Root and Thurgood in the season as a way to look at systemic change in two different ways: socially and legally.
“Both of the plays sort of attack activism and look at change from two different ways,” Ayers said. “One being socially, looking and uniting despite our social differences to move the community forward, and another being using the law as a weapon to move the community forward. Both of them are … really great ways to sort of spark conversation around how we get involved.”
After the past year, Ayers believes that society is challenging itself to rise to the occasion of activism — whether it be from the 2020 election, continued instances of police brutality against Black Americans or the ongoing threat of COVID-19.
“What I like about both of those plays together, in the same season,” said Ayers, “coming out of 2020 … this call to action that was happening in our country, being able to examine what that looks like and ignite or encourage activism that’s already been existing in our Chautauqua audience, is really important to me.”
Artistic Director Andrew Borba believes this play is perfect for right now — to see how far we have come, but also to see how far we still have to go.
“It’s a play about a man who was born in 1908, to see what amazing things that he individually accomplished, to see the amazing things that have changed with whole sections of society since he was on this planet,” Borba said. “To see and be reminded how much we need to continue to work.”
Thurgood stars Brian Marable as the titular role, and he is tasked with remembering 55 pages’ worth of dialogue.
“It’s a tour de force performance, but it’s a heavy lift,” Borba said. “This is not just memorizing a couple scenes. He’s carrying that show for 90 minutes. It’s a thrill, but that is a very high mountain for any actor to (climb). What’s been great about Brian is he’s always been capable of it, but he also came prepared, he brought his hiking boots and he said, ‘I’m gonna climb this mountain,’ and it’s been nothing but brilliant since he got here.”
Managing Director Sarah Clare Corporandy has watched Marable in other productions at the Detroit Public Theater and loves watching him disappear into his role as Marshall.
“He’s a very excited, passionate artist, and so as a producer, it’s really wonderful to work with him,” Corporandy said. “I feel like he brings 150% to the stage every day, and watching him in Thurgood knowing how excited he was about it, knowing how hard he worked on it, knowing how much he cares about this role.”
The play is directed by Steve H. Broadnax III, who was set to direct a production for the Cleveland Play House before the pandemic hit.
“He runs the best rehearsal room I’ve ever seen,” Borba said. “It is positive and connected, engaged, focused, supportive. That has really resonated for the company. I think it resonates through Brian, and through the performance, and through all of the artists that have come to produce this.”
Ayers learned a lot about Marshall that she did not know prior to this play, including how he carried himself in the face of oppression.
“He had a way of dealing with oppression and dealing with racism in a way that didn’t stop his whole progression in history and what he was called to do in his life,” Ayers said.
In the play, Marshall describes how working as a server, rich white people would call him racial slurs while also tipping him well. He would take the money and he would not protest the insults thrown at him.
With this anecdote, Ayers saw a level of strength in Marshall that she did not know he possessed beforehand.
“He had a bigger picture in mind,” Ayers said. “To me, that’s not a weakness; that’s a strength. That’s an insurmountable amount of strength to be able to look past what’s happening in the immediate moment, to know what your purpose and your goals are beyond the immediate moment and keep pressing toward those despite the odds … how he handled growing up and his different experiences and how he was able to keep his eyes on the prize. It was really inspiring.”
Thurgood is equal parts a piece of informative theater as it is a morning lecture by Thurgood Marshall.
“It’s a lecture and performance at the same time, and you’re gonna walk away feeling like you can change the world,” Corporandy said. “(It’s) certainly a call to action, it is humbling to hear someone tell their life story and what they sacrificed in their life because of what they believed they needed to fight for. It’s hard for me to walk away from that and not daily evaluate what I need to be fighting for.”