Justice’s life dramatized for junior class

“America never was America to me, and yet I swear this oath—America will be!” 

The words of Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again” rang through the Upper School (US) theater on January 22, when the junior class convened to hear Johnny Lee Davenport perform Thurgood, a one-man play written in 2005 by George Stevens, Jr., and originally featuring James Earl Jones as the nation’s first African-American Supreme Court Justice. The poem comes at the end of the play as a reminder of Thurgood Marshall’s contributions toward equality and the progress that still needs to be made.  

Mr. Davenport entered the theater as though it were a lecture hall and addressed the Class of 2020 and United States History teachers as though they were law students at Howard University, where Marshall attended. A red armchair, table, and coatrack sat in front of the stage for the duration of the show, and photographs of Marshall’s family members, friends, and acquaintances—including the grandfather after whom Marshall was named and Homer Plessy, the defendant in the case Plessy v. Ferguson—stood on the stage in wooden frames, to which Mr. Davenport pointed as they came up in his performance.

The play took the audience through Marshall’s life, starting in his childhood, when as a schoolboy he was often punished by being sent to the basement to read the Constitution; by the end of high school, Mr. Davenport, portraying Marshall, said he had the document memorized “cover to cover.” His interest in the law followed and lead to his career as a lawyer, then judge, and eventually Supreme Court justice—a tenure marked by landmark decisions such as Smith v. Allwright and Brown v. Board of Education.

“I thought it was cool how [the play] was from the perspective of Thurgood Marshall as an older man telling the story of his life,” Talia Mirel ’20 said. “It felt like he was a real person telling you his story.”

About 20 minutes into the performance, Mr. Davenport rallied a sleepy audience with an emphatic “Are you with me?” He engaged the students by pacing through the theater and asking three students who were sitting next to the aisle—Cecilia Johnson, Katie Stevo, and Adon Goodpaster (all ’20)—to read the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, the 14th Amendment, and the Smith v. Allwright decision, respectively. They each received a copy of the Constitution immediately in return. 

In response to Myles Nadeau-Davis ’20 during a question-and-answer session after the play, Mr. Davenport said he felt connected to Marshall because he, too, had faced race-based discrimination.

“Many of you may not understand what it feels like to hear car doors locking as you’re walking down the street,” he said. “You don’t know how humiliating that is.”

Myles said he appreciated Mr. Davenport’s openness and found the play’s messages important.

“Growing up as an African-American in mostly white areas, I was aware of the fact that I was different, and seeing the struggle that people like me had to go through just for education was really moving,” Myles said. “I think that at times we might take our opportunities for granted.”

Asked by Jayanth Uppaluri ’20 what he wanted the audience to take away from the play, Mr. Davenport replied, “I want you to act, to take action. I don’t want you to just walk out of here and say, ‘Oh, that was a nice play.’ Do something! Mediocrity runs rampant. Don’t be mediocre. Be excellent.”

US History Teacher Daniel McClure said he was interested in the play’s mention of the different approaches of Thurgood Marshall and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as individuals working toward the same goal in different ways. Marshall believed in effecting change within a system through the laws and the courtroom, the play suggested, while Dr. King believed people should use civil disobedience to create change, Mr. McClure said. 

“I think that’s very much a conversation that young people have in my class all the time,” he said, “asking which is the better route, or is one made more efficient or more effective by the other?” 

History and Social Sciences Department Head Susan Glazer said she first watched Thurgood in 2017 at the New Repertory Theater and took her United States History classes to see the show there that same year. Later that summer, she received an email from the theater informing her that they had started a new program taking the show to different locations. Ms. Glazer coordinated a time for Mr. Davenport to bring the show to the school, and during the first week of January last year, he performed the play for the then-junior class.

Ms. Glazer said she wanted students to connect the problems Marshall faced to problems still present today.

“My hope is that the junior class as audience members hear that as kind of a clarion call—there is still a lot of work to be done,” she said. “The goal of our department is thinking not just about examining the past and understanding how we got to where we are, but also empowering students to think of themselves as agents of change.”

Due to issues with scheduling, Ms. Glazer said, she is not sure if the show will continue, but she stressed its value as an experience for the juniors.

“We are really lucky that we have been able to coordinate this for two years, and the hope is to keep it as something to supplement the curriculum,” she said. “It’s a really great opportunity for students to learn about Thurgood Marshall—an amazing and complicated individual.”

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