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'Thurgood' pays fitting tribute to justice's achievements

| Friday, March 15, 2013, 8:57 p.m.
Montae Russell stars as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in the Pittsburgh Public Theatre's one-man play 'Thurgood' on Sunday, March 1, 2013.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Montae Russell stars as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in the Pittsburgh Public Theatre's one-man play 'Thurgood' on Sunday, March 1, 2013.

You may think you know Thurgood Marshall.

But, it's likely your acquaintance doesn't extend much beyond his role as a Supreme Court justice and his earlier successful arguments in Brown vs. the Board of Education that led to school desegregation.

But those were only the most prominent achievements that you'll learn during Pittsburgh Public Theater's production of “Thurgood,” playing at the O'Reilly Theater, Downtown, through April 7.

Homestead native Montae Russell returned from his Los Angeles home to perform this 90-minute tribute to Marshall. The actor will be familiar to Pittsburgh Public Theater audiences from his roles there in six August Wilson plays.

Russell and director Ted Pappas emphasize Marshall's vigor, wit, intelligence and hard work throughout his life as he used the law as a weapon against racial inequality. Marshall believed that separate facilities and rules for whites and blacks were not just offensive but constitutionally indefensible.

It's as much a saga of the continuing national journey away from discrimination as it is Marshall's.

The premise of the play, written by George Stevens Jr., is that Marshall, now near the end of his life, has returned to Howard University School of Law, his alma mater, to give a lecture.

As he reminisces, he goes from an elderly man who uses a cane to the youngster whose outspoken opinions often got him sent to the school's boiler room with the punishment of learning a section of the Constitution.

Pappas and Russell work to get Marshall out from behind the lectern as much as possible and to enliven the proceedings with lively gestures and facial expressions.

But the narrative is linear in nature and the presentation is often one man's static retelling of events. The fault for that is more with Stevens' script, which offers few places where alternate voices or perspectives are enacted.

The line load is impressive, so it's not surprising that while Russell never flagged in his performance, the March 14 final preview contained a few rough patches.

It's almost certain that the show will flow better, and possibly with more liveliness, after Russell has had a few more performances.

Pappas and his creative team also attempt to add context and atmosphere to the proceedings through projections designed by Larry Shea and sound designs by Zach Moore throughout the show.

Particularly notable are the images depicting the landmark Supreme Court decision and its aftermath.

Those with some former knowledge of Marshall's life and accomplishments will find much of interest in this story that adds depth and understanding to what he achieved and his place in history.

For others who encounter him for the first time, it will be an uplifting showcase of the impact on social change that one committed person can have.

“Thurgood” continues through April 7 at 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. most Wednesdays to Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. most Saturdays and 2 and 7 p.m. most Sundays. Admission is $23 to $55; $15.75 for students and age 26 and younger with valid ID.

Details: 412-316-1600 or

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or

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