Thurgood, New Repertory Theatre

Charles Mosesian Theater
Aresenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, Mass.
January 7  – February 12, 2017

By George Stevens Jr.
Directed by Benny Sato Ambush
Role: Thurgood Marshall

A young Thurgood Marshall takes on a case. (PHOTO: Andrew Brilliant)

A young Thurgood Marshall takes on a case. (PHOTO: Andrew Brilliant)

A more experienced Thurgood Marshall argues his first case before the Supreme Court of the United States. (PHOTO: Andrew Brilliant)

A more experienced Thurgood Marshall argues his first case before the Supreme Court of the United States. (PHOTO: Andrew Brilliant)

An older Thurgood Marshall explains the law. (PHOTO: Andrew Brilliant)

An older Thurgood Marshall explains the law. (PHOTO: Andrew Brilliant)

An aging Thurgood Marshall prepares to retire after 24 years on the Supreme Court. (PHOTO: Andrew Brilliant)

An aging Thurgood Marshall prepares to retire after 24 years on the Supreme Court. (PHOTO: Andrew Brilliant)

Critical Response

“‘A Scintillating One Man Performance By Johnny Lee Davenport ‐ And a MUST SEE!’
sssssThis one-man play allows superb actor Johnny Lee Davenport the freedom to spend two hours weaving a tale of Thurgood Marshall’s journey from the slums of Baltimore to a seat on the bench on the highest court in the land. It is an extraordinary performance recapturing the life of a man who made history during several crucial and tumultuous decades of the 20th century.
sssssMr. Davenport’s performance is egregiously good—depicting the aging of Mr. Marshall throughout the course of the narration of his life’s journey as his posture and vocalizations evolve and devolve. He uses the supple instrument of his voice with power, subtlety and grace to create moods of tension, fear, anticipation, disappointment, rage, anguish, hope, and euphoria.”
—Al Chase, White Rhino Report (January 11, 2017)

Johnny Lee Davenport delivers a commanding, compelling portrait of the First African-American to serve as a justice on the United States Supreme Court in the New Repertory Theatre’s production of ‘Thurgood,’ playing through Feb. 5 in the black box space at the Mosesian Center for the Arts.
sssssDavenport, under the direction of Benny Sato Ambush, plays the part in a relaxed, collegial manner, so that there’s no dusty air of academe. Instead, we’re given the warm, wise and slightly rambling recollections of an accomplished jurist, and the way he pours himself the occasional drop of whisky hints at humanizing personal struggles while simultaneously establishing a sense of intimate rapport: Here, indeed, is a figure from history with whom you wouldn’t mind sharing a drink. It’s without discernible effort that Davenport commands the show for as solid two hours, without intermission. The actor is skilled at folding the occasional dropped line into the flow of his personable delivery, but don’t let his approach lull you: Marshall, as we see him here, isn’t a faded relic, but rather a respected elder whose patter, soft and inviting as it is, barely conceals a sharp and brilliant streak of humor . . . not to mention a still white-hot streak of passion for social justice.”
Killian Melloy, The ARTery (January 11, 2017)

“Performing the role of a towering historical figure requires a performer with the same kind of presence on stage, in this case Johnny Lee Davenport. Director Benny Sato Ambush, who worked with Davenport in such productions as ‘The Whipping Man,’ ‘Driving Miss Daisy,’ and ‘Master Harold . . . and the boys’ no doubt helped Davenport find the essence of Marshall, the humanity behind the iconic civil rights figure.
sssssThanks to the efforts of its principals—most notably Davenport—‘Thurgood,’ which clocks in just under two hours with no intermission, works on all levels: as excellent entertainment, a theatrical tour de force by an accomplished performer, and as a history lesson that teaches us things we as Americans should never forget.”
—Rich Fahey, On Boston Stages (January 11, 2017)

“‘Davenport does justice to legal giant in ‘Thurgood.’
sssssHe enters slowly and haltingly, supported by a cane, an old man seemingly worn down by time. But when he begins to speak, his voice is strong and sure. He still has work to do, and it starts with telling his story.
sssssCasting Johnny Lee Davenport as Thurgood Marshall in New Repertory Theatre’s production of “Thurgood’’ is an idea that is both inspired and entirely logical. Davenport delivers, as this exemplary actor invariably does, but to do so he has to rise above George Stevens Jr.’s paint­by­numbers script.
sssssDavenport has the kind of ineffable stage presence that can’t be adequately described but needs to be experienced. He has a way of filling the space he’s in—and at New Rep’s Black Box Theater, it’s a small space—that has only partly to do with his imposing size and his rich, rolling, versatile voice.
sssssHis impact in live performance can be more directly traced to the way Davenport seems alive in every moment of a play and alert to exploring every possible corner of the characters he plays—including, crucially, their humor. However serious the subject, Davenport seldom succumbs to solemnity. His Thurgood Marshall is every inch the happy warrior, although the ideals that animated Marshall also shine through in Davenport’s passionate portrayal.
sssss. . . Davenport does some vivid impressions of LBJ, offering glimpses not just of the president’s shrewdness and larger­than­life personality but also his commitment to racial justice, opposition be damned.
Don Aucoin, Boston Globe (January 12, 2017)

“[W]ith ‘Thurgood,’ the low level of despair of the seeming powerlessness over our current circumstances is eclipsed by the power of the material and the performance of the always riveting Johnny Lee Davenport—who gives us a fully human portrayal of a man who helped to rectify centuries of racial injustice.
sssssThe play focuses more on the professional accomplishments of Marshall, and less on his personal life (although the script makes multiple references to a possible fondness for the booze and hints at a womanizing problem), but that professional life is pretty damn interesting and Davenport is a masterful storyteller, so it matters little.
sssssWhen a staff member told me that the show runs nearly two hours without an intermission, I groaned internally, but found that time moved reasonably quickly (and will probably be shortened even more as Davenport becomes more comfortable with the reams of dialogue in subsequent performances). ‘Thurgood’ is both very good theater and really important history—one which we can only hope does not repeat itself.”
Michael Hoban, The Theater Mirror (January 12, 2107)

It feels somewhat like a history lesson, but it’s a very very engaging one.”
Jared Bowen, Arts This Week WGBH (January 12, 2017)

“The compelling and charismatic Johnny Lee Davenport plays Marshall with great warmth and authority . . . . Davenport is the actor for the job; he has the chops, stamina, and power to persuade.”
Joyce Kulhawik, Joyce’s Choices (January 13, 2017)

Johnny Lee Davenport relates these stories and so many others in this amazing journey with such authenticity that there were times when I almost stood up to ask him, meaning Justice Marshall, a question. Mr. Davenport’s movements about the stage, his pauses, the subtleties in voice and step that cue us in to the different periods of Marshall’s life are so smooth and authentic that there was never a moment when I didn’t feel I was actually with Thurgood Marshall.”
Bobby Franklin, “On the Aisle Theatre Notes” for the Post-Gazette (January 13, 2017)

“[W]hile it is at times structured like a lecture, with estimable actor Johnny Lee Davenport in the title role of Thurgood Marshall, one of the preeminent civil rights figures of the 20th century and the first African American appointed to the United States Supreme Court, ‘Thurgood’ will have you leaning in, not wanting to miss a single word.
sssssUnder Benny Sato Ambush’s sure-footed direction, the play moves smoothly between various time periods, with Davenport subtly adjusting his posture and modulating the timbre of his voice to seamlessly handle each transition. New Rep’s Black Box space lends the experience an intimacy that allows audiences to not only feel the passion in Davenport’s portrayal, but also to see the twinkle in his eyes that makes clear Marshall’s ability to maintain warmth and find humor in tough situations.”
R. Scott Reedy, Wicked Local (January 18, 2017)

Davenport’s demeanor is that of a boisterous and unpredictable grandfather, tittering with self­amusement one minute, thundering in anger the next. Davenport is exquisite at modulating his voice to embody Marshall’s various family members, friends, colleagues, and enemies. He expertly shuffled around the three­quarter stage, wheeling the lovely leather chair back and forth, alternating sips of water with sips of ‘whiskey,’ seeming to address every audience member individually, the way a skilled lawyer reaches out to each and every member of a jury.”
Fabiana Cabral, My Entertainment World: My Theatre (January 19, 2017)

“‘A gripping portrait of the late great Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, with a tour de force solo performance by Johnny Lee Davenport.’
sssssThere is both considerable detail and considerable humor in the rendition, and Johnny Lee Davenport does a great job of managing the considerable body of details and narratives; as well, he gives a warm and engaging portrait of Marshall himself. It’s an amazingly compelling performance.
sssssJohnny Lee Davenport has distinguished himself in many roles on Boston stages over the years, and his work in Thurgood offers a notable distillation of the capacities he has exhibited so effectively elsewhere.
sssssThis account of Marshall, a notably articulate and thoughtful jurist and an honorable man, is a most welcome contribution in the darkness of this winter season, and the vivid and moving rendition given by Johnny Lee Davenport a wonderfully warm reminder of the inspiration offered by a great American whose striking accomplishments did not diminish his humanity nor his humility.”
BADMan Charles Munitz, Boston Arts Diary (January 26, 2017)

“‘Davenport Artfully Celebrates the Life of Marshall in New Rep’s ‘Thurgood.’
sssssTogether, [Johnny Lee Davenport and Benny Sato Ambush] create a humanized portrait of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall that is at once relatable and larger-than-life, taking care to present him as a good citizen who took that precious responsibility seriously. . . . Thurgood is equal parts character study and history lesson, both of which are equally compelling. In portraying Marshall, Davenport adopts a professorial persona when he is relating his family history, and switches his bearing to reenact his appearances before the bench. He adjusts his posture and gait to reflect the aging process, as well. Throughout, Davenport infuses the character with warmth and intelligence, shows some of his periods of doubt and disappointment, and drives home the quality of Marshall’s character, earning respect and admiration from the audience.”
Nancy Grossman, Boston (January 12, 2017)

“‘Thurgood’ paints stunning portrait of legal giant. . . .It features Johnny Lee Davenport as the legendary Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Playing through Feb. 5 in the black box space at the Mosesian Center for the Arts in Watertown, the show provides an intimate, personal and professional portrait of the legal giant with wit, humor and perseverance.
sssssJohnny Lee Davenport is ideal in the part, playing Marshall as at once gracious, hardworking, bigheaded and confident. He also brings out Marshall’s penchant for comedy. This subject matter easily could have gone preachy and somber, but Davenport’s natural physical wit and punch line delivery balances the heavy themes.”
Celina Colby, The Bay State Banner (January 19, 2017)

Facebook Posts: Johnny Lee Davenport was Brilliant and Endearing as Thurgood Marshall. I am so glad I got one of the last seats on the last day to see it. I hope the play returns, I wand my friends and family to see it… —H Nat Stevens (February 12, 2017) / Davenport’s portrayal was beyond anything words can convey. —Paul Gage (January 27, 2017) 

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