Monday, June 7, 2010

Washington Social Diary

The cast party for Thurgood, benefiting The HistoryMakers, moved outside to the Kennedy Center's rooftop terrace.
by Carol Joynt

When Laurence Fishburne ambled onto the stage of the Eisenhower Theater, cane in hand, slightly stooped, the resemblance was uncanny. It was not Mr. Fishburne at all. In that marvelous way that fine actors have of embodying their character, Fishburne had absorbed and become Thurgood Marshall. A comforting sigh of familiarity and regard rushed through the Washington audience, and then we were off, each and every one of us on a shared journey of education, fascination, awe and memory.

Thurgood is a an African American story, and also a very American story, but it is above all a Washington play. When Fishburne made reference to the White House, Justice Department, Supreme Court or Howard University, and waved his hand in one direction or another, the audience nodded. We know these places.

The invitation. Fishburne was the 2008 Drama Desk Award Winner for Outstanding Solo Performance for Thurgood.
They’re virtually right outside the door, part of the neighborhood. We shared the same smug pride of familiarity when he talked about Baltimore, just up the highway, where Marshall was born and raised and began his remarkable passage into the history books as a lawyer, judge and ultimately the first African American to serve on the Supreme Court.

The event was a benefit for The HistoryMakers, a non-profit organization which claims to be amassing the single largest collected oral history of African Americans – individuals, organizations, events, movements and significant moments. Much like Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, which produced a video history of survivors and witnesses to the Holocaust, The HistoryMakers, based in Chicago, conducts interviews wherever there’s a story to be told. The focus is on regular folks as well as the accomplished and famous.

Thurgood Marshall, however, is a singular example of accomplishment and fame, and the timeline of his story is a timeline, too, of the modern Civil Rights movement.

The audience, many of them long-time supporters of The HistoryMakers, was predominately African American. I was the white girl on the aisle, keenly aware of being in the company of people who were much better educated, tops in their fields, not to mention of high social standing. Black society is as orthodox as the British aristocracy, with a hierarchy that dwarfs aspects of what we consider the conventional social strata. Take, as a good example of what I’m talking about, these three who were part of the evening - Ann Dibble Jordan, her brother Eugene Dibble and her daughter, Antoinette Cook Bush, who is chair of The HistoryMakers board.
Argelia Rodriguez and Gwen Ifll.
Aubrey Sarvis with Toni and Dwight Bush.
Riley Temple, J'son Townes, and Alyssa Finemore.
Black or white, it was impossible to watch Fishburne on stage and not time travel. I grew up here and was in high school when President Johnson appointed Marshall to the Court. That was 1967, and for all the sophistication you might assume Washington would have as the nation’s capital, it was still a very Southern and racially divided city. No, I never knew the segregation and “white’s only” culture that is vividly captured in the play, but it wasn’t in the too distant past, either.

When I helped my school arrange for a soul band to come up from Richmond to play at a big dance, my mother volunteered to have the band members stay at our house. Wonderful idea. These were great guys. But while the band was white, the lead singer was black. My mother, a Romanian immigrant, McCarthy Democrat and supremely colorblind individual, didn't give it a thought. Our neighbors, on the other hand, were shocked because a young black man slept with his buddies on the floor in the rec room of our home for precisely one night.
Herb Miller. Retired Army General Clara Adams Ender.
It was barely a year after Marshall joined the court that Martin Luther King was murdered and race riots erupted in many cities, notably the nation’s capital where the angry mayhem lasted for five days. Even though my school was smoothly integrated, my classmates and I were caught in the trauma of King’s death. Several years earlier we coped with the scary and confusing murder of a president, John F. Kennedy, and now this, which had us believing the world was, indeed, a frightful place. On the other hand, at home my father took a shotgun out of a locked case and put it by the front door. That scared me even more than the riots.

In the darkened theater, safe and comfortable in my red velvet seat, I recalled those tumultuous years as Fishburne gave life to the much more challenging and harrowing experiences Marshall endured as he stood up to racism on behalf of individuals like Donald Gaines Murray, or, as Chief Counsel for the NAACP, when he won the landmark Brown v. Board of Education (of Topeka, Ka). While respected and revered in a courtroom, particularly when arguing before the Supreme Court, out in the world, and in certain cities and towns, Marshall was starkly reminded that racists could not see the value of a person, only the color of their skin, and only then with hatred.
Off to the side, just before curtain, George Stevens Jr., his son Michael Stevens, and director Leonard Foglia.
George Stevens, Jr., who wrote the play, artfully threads these elements into the narrative, so that the audience is always included in Marshall’s experiences. We’re young with him, middle aged with him, old with him, we laugh and cry with him; we’re in his head as he experiences all his epiphanies, particularly the meaning of the words etched on the front pediment of the Supreme Court building: “Equal Justice Under Law.”

Stevens sat quietly in a corner of the theater, savoring Fishburne’s performance, his son Michael Stevens one seat over, director Leonard Foglia nearby. The play is no longer in its infancy, having first been produced at the Westport Playhouse in 2007, starring James Earle Jones. Fishburne took it to Broadway a year later. Stevens’ goals include putting Fishburne’s performance on film and getting the film into schools and also on television. How fortunate for the future audiences.

Others in the audience and at the cast party were a who’s who of Washington’s African American elite, including Ralph Everett, the first African American to be staff director for a Senate committee; Alma Powell, Gwen Ifill, Michelle Norris, Riley Temple, Reggie Van Lee, Jamal Simmons, Dwight Bush, Vernon Jordan, Debra Lee, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, Roscoe Dellums and her son, actor Erik Todd Dellums, Johnathan and Royal Kennedy Rogers, Tony and Carlotta Miles, Clarice and George Walker.
Arriving at the cast party.
At the cast party: Dwight Bush, Carolyn Peachy, Toni Bush, Ann Jordan, and Vernon Jordan.
The play's star and author: Laurence Fishburne and George Stevens Jr.
A family affair: Liz, George, and Michael Stevens.
Some more names from the list: Robin Brooks and Charlotte Kea, Kelly Ann Dibble, Ivey Bush and Justin Lawrence, Shayla Bush and Walter Harris, Gabriella and Jeff Byas, Annette and Bill Cashaw, Jacques Cook, Hattie and Felix Cummings, Judith Batty, Lindsay Barnes, Laura Barnes, Adrienne Arsht, Warren Allen, Joseph Ferguson, Margaret Cummisky, Vanessa Jones, Louise de la Fuente, Leslie Delagran, Eugene Dibble, Devin Dowdell and Tia Wade, Michelle Ellison, Valerie Ervin, Denise Harrod, Yodi Hailemariam, Brittany Hamelers, Alison Beason, Rochanda Hiligh-Thomas, Derwin Grant, Marguerite Grffin, Brenda Gruss and Daniel Hirsch, Elizabeth Ann Hylton, James Hylton, Harriet Jenkins, Desiree Hicks, Deborah Lathen, Pearlie Lee, Ken Mack, Murphy McNeil, James Mitchell, Autumn Montague and James Hunter, Jr., Doug and Janet Nettles, Leah Odom, Thornal Page, Essie Page, Thomas Penny, Antonious Porch, Joseph and Eleanor Quash, Robert Raben, Al Reid, Julieanna Richardson, Michael Rankin, Everett Rankin, Mike and Zenora Rankin, Nancy Rubin, Argelia Rodriquez, Aubrey Sarvis, Robert and Sylvia Simmons, Jeffrey Slavin, Michael Stevens, Liz Stevens, Cynthia Swann, Carol Thomas, Laura Thomas, J’son Townes, Alyssa Finemore, Yolanda Townsend, Stacy Tucker, Jonice Gray Tucker, Albert and Caroline Turkus, Jamie Gorlick and Richard Waldhorn, Whitney Washington, Shirley Wilcher, Faye Williams, Carolyn Yancey.
Vernon Jordan, one of the producers of "Thurgood," with its star, Laurence Fishburne. Reggie Van Lee and Liz Stevens.
Fishburne with Toni and Dwight Bush.
Aubrey Sarvis, head of the nearly successful effort to overturn "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," talks serious business with Vernon Jordan at the cast party.
On the Kennedy Center's rooftop, Gwin Ifill, Laurence Fishburne, and Riley Temple.
For more about The HistoryMakers, their website is here:
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe in Washington, D.C.

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