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The great civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall gets memorialized in a one-man play

Eric Clausell gives a magnetic, charming performance as Thurgood Marshall. Photo credit: Lisa Monet Photography

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Thurgood Marshall was a great man, but make no mistake: he was human. This, along with highlighting the many accomplishments of his life, seems to be the central thesis of Thurgood, a one-man show that had a life on Broadway with Laurence Fishburne, and is now being staged at Theatre on the Square. The lawyer who stamped his influence on the greater historical good by successfully representing black peoples' right to attend the same schools as white people in Brown v. Board of Education, before moving on to becoming a Supreme Court justice for 24 years, is memorialized in Thurgood.

Marshall chipped away at making the world a better place, every turn facing opposition, but Thurgood makes it clear that he was no stoic martyr, but a passionate, vulnerable man, who stood up in spite of the toll it took on him. The play is framed around a keynote speech Marshall is giving at his alma mater, the Howard University School of Law, a historically black college, with an aged Marshall remembering his life. For someone with such a fascinating career, Marshall had a complex internal life, and Thurgood makes a good decision in roughly dividing half of Marshall's stories between professional ones and personal ones, giving a well-rounded look at the man.

This is a one-man play that's presented with no intermission, so the person playing Marshall better be up to the task. Thankfully, Eric Clausell makes a charming Thurgood Marshall, lending the whole play the feeling of an old man pulling you aside at a party and regaling you with his best stories. Given that the play is an hour and 45 minutes long, there were only one or two misspoken lines, and even those were easily played off, just as they would be with the real Thurgood Marshall giving such a long talk. His loquaciousness and conviviality sell him as an effective lawyer, as well as lend weight to the more harrowing experiences he went through. One story involving his run-in with the Ku Klux Klan is both utterly frightening and way funnier than it seems like it should be.

Bret Carr directs Thurgood, with co-direction from Clausell himself, and the threat of stagnation with a nearly two-hour monologue is effectively eliminated. Evocative lighting from Nick Shellman livens up the small stage of Theatre on the Square, giving a sense of movement to the play. The script, by George Stevens, Jr., offers a compelling overview of Marshall's life, and may inspire unfamiliar audience members to dive deeper afterward. Thurgood is full of anger, humor, melancholy and a sense of determined optimism. In a time when there's a renewed vigor in activism for African-American equality, Thurgood stands as a hopeful, yet realistic, reminder that change can happen -- as it did, in part thanks to Marshall, in the shaky times of the ‘50s -- but that it takes courage and untold amounts of dedication to upend the status quo. Be prepared to leave Thurgood fired up.

THURGOOD, 7:30 p.m., Thursday-Friday; 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Saturday, through March 3, $14-$44, Theatre on the Square, 901 Broadway, Tacoma, 253.591.5890,

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