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.”