THURGOOD (Walnut Street): A supreme life

Thurgood Walnut Street Theatre review

Johnnie Hobbs, Jr., as THURGOOD. Photo by Mark Garvin.

“Equal justice under law.” This motto, carved into the facade of the Supreme Court building, served as the motto and guide of Thurgood Marshall’s career.

Johnnie Hobbs Jr. takes the stage in this riveting—and educational—and entertaining—solo show. Written by George Stevens Jr., Thurgood is a biography of the man who became the first African American Supreme Court Justice.  As Hobbs walks us through the remarkable life, from “disputatious” student to grey eminence, we learn about the passion for justice that led to the repeal of  Plessy v. Ferguson, the case that had given federal sanction to the shameful “separate but equal” laws. It was Thurgood Marshall who won the famous 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education, which integrated schools in America.

Hobbs gives us glimpses of other characters: his opponent, Davis, the soft-spoken “lawyer’s lawyer,” and he then switches voices to LBJ who appointed him to the court. The history is full of surprises: the man who administered the oath of office to the Supreme Court was a former member of the Ku Klux Klan, while Earl Warren who wrote the unanimous opinion of the court striking down “separate but equal,” was the judge who had sent thousands of Japanese citizens to internment camps during WWII. “The law is a weapon if you know how to use it,” and Marshall really knew how to use it.

Thurgood’s given name was Thoroughgood, changed by him in third grade to the shorter  version. His mother, he recalls, was a schoolteacher who had to scrub the classroom floors at the end of each day, unlike the white schoolteachers. She was also paid 40% less than they were. But his passion for justice didn’t erase his sense of humor; near the end of his life he quipped, “I have a lifetime appointment and I intend to serve it. I expect to die at 110, shot by a jealous husband.”

[Independence Studio on 3 at the Walnut Street Theatre, 9th & Walnut Streets] January 7-February 9, 2020; walnutstreettheatre.org

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About the author

Toby Zinman

Toby Zinman is a recently retired professor of English at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was a Fulbright professor at Tel Aviv University and a visiting professor in China. She publishes widely and lectures internationally on American drama. Her fifth book, Replay: Classic Modern Drama Reimagined, was published by Methuen, and she published the essay, "Visions of Tragedy in Contemporary American Drama," in 2017. Zinman is also the chief theater critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. She was named by American Theatre magazine as, “one of the 12 most influential critics in America.” Her travel writing has taken her all over the world, from dogsledding in the Yukon to hiking across England.