Laurence Fishburne was 6 years old when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. His mother, who was raising him alone in Park Slope, dropped him off with Grandma, put on her best clothes, and went down to Georgia to attend King’s funeral. Forty years later to the day, a few weeks after Barack Obama’s big speech on race in America, Fishburne is sitting at the cozy Popover Café near his Upper West Side apartment, digging into a Creole Scramble, and sporting a wisp of a mustache he’s growing to play America’s first black Supreme Court justice in the one-man Broadway show Thurgood. “It’s funny,” he says, “when you hear people ask you things like, ‘Is there still racism in America, is there still racism in Hollywood?’ And you just want to smack the shit out of them.”
Nothing physical ensues when I ask him how his career might have been different if he’d been white. Just a roll of the eyes and a minor verbal smackdown. “What do you think?” he asks a few times. “You got an answer yet? Really, my stance with this, when it comes to questions about race and blah blah blah, I always put the question back on the person that asks me. If you want to talk to me about racism, you need to have a conversation with me about it.”
He does answer the question, in a way. The man known to millions as the avuncular Morpheus from The Matrix (but don’t call him that, and never, ever call him “Larry”) says that he has found himself choosing between what he calls “the badass nigger” and “the Magical Negro”—between, say, Ike Turner and Thurgood Marshall—and that the elusive middle ground is “where I’ve been trying to live.”
Another name he often gets mistakenly called is Samuel L. Jackson, which—though the two are friends—must be a bit galling, because Jackson’s choices have been somewhat less careful than Fishburne’s. “You don’t see me doing that stuff. I don’t see me doing that stuff either,” he says, when Snakes on a Plane is mentioned. “But I don’t play golf. Sam plays golf. Sam doesn’t ride motorcycles, I do. Do you know what I mean?”
“They say that the great roles come to an actor in his forties,” says Fishburne, 46, who’s been acting since the age of 10. “That’s true with respect to the theater for me.” Fishburne spent two years in the early nineties in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running, for which he won a Tony. He wrote one well-received play, Riff Raff (after Wilson encouraged him to write), and you may not have noticed, but he spent half of 2006 onstage. It was his performance in a Pasadena production of Wilson’s Fences that convinced Thurgood playwright George Stevens Jr. to cast him as the commanding, mercurial lawyer who won Brown v. Board of Education.
Fishburne follows two personal heroes in taking the part: Sidney Poitier, who was Marshall in Stevens’s television version of the drama, Separate But Equal, and James Earl Jones, who did Thurgood in tryouts two years ago before dropping out. (Stevens says that “James Earl was wonderful,” but “it simply didn’t work in his schedule and his life to do eight shows a week.”)
Fishburne might have more in common with Jimi Hendrix—a part he’s always wanted to play but thinks he’s aged out of—than with a lawyer who thought even King went too far in advocating civil disobedience. Instead of going to the High School of Performing Arts, he left Brooklyn at age 14 to film Apocalypse Now in the Philippines, which exposed him to both the glorious power of acting and the pitfalls (drugs, madness, etc.) of a life devoted to it. His parents flew over at different points to chaperone, after realizing Fishburne was learning as much about weed and women as he was about camera angles. For several years after that, he spent much of his time drinking around New York and L.A., playing mostly criminals but also Cowboy Curtis on Pee-wee’s Playhouse. It took Spike Lee’s School Daze to pull him out of his rut. Fishburne claims to be “a different cat” these days, but he’s still got his badass side. He recently admitted to riding through Russia stoned in 2000, nearly wiping out with Frank Gehry on the back of his bike.
In figuring out how to play Thurgood Marshall—the straitlaced product of a very different time—Fishburne says it was his own disciplinarian, corrections-officer father who first came to mind. “It has to do with his size, with the fact that my dad wore glasses,” but mainly with his outlook. “My father was a man who referred to himself as a colored person. Thurgood Marshall is of the same generation.”
Director Leonard Foglia recalls what Fishburne said to him before rehearsals: “Tell me about his father and mother”—especially his mother. “An African-American mother produced a doctor and a lawyer. That’s extraordinary [for that time],” says Foglia. Fishburne was likely thinking of his own ambitious mother, who drove her child into acting. He seems reconciled to that early pressure. “They say it takes ten years to make an actor,” says Fishburne. “My good fortune was that my ten years was really fifteen.”
It’s taken another fifteen or so to get a starring Broadway role, but the timing couldn’t have been better. “It’s thrilling,” says Foglia, “to be bringing a discussion of race to Broadway” at a time when Obama is running for president. But when I ask Fishburne what he makes of an especially fertile season for black actors, we’re back to the Conversation.
“Yeah, all that. Hmmm,” he says, then lets loose a stentorian laugh that doubles the decibel level. “As far as I’m concerned, there’s just some really great actors on Broadway. Frances McDormand, great fucking actress. Why can’t we just talk about that, you know?”
Because that’s not what we’re talking about? “No, but are you prepared to really have that conversation?”
After delivering the check, our waiter takes a moment to praise Fishburne for “putting Thurgood’s story out there.” Fishburne thanks him and turns back to repeat a point he made earlier—that Brown v. Board of Education was the result of twenty years of painstaking work, that the arc of Marshall’s life story is the arc of an entire movement. “I feel like this show is that conversation.”
By George Stevens Jr.
Booth Theatre. Opens April 30.