By Liz Armstrong
Thurgood, by George Stevens Jr., has been very successful since it premiered in 2006 at the Westport Country Playhouse. A one-man play depicting the life of Thurgood Marshall, it is “one of the most frank, informed and searing discussions of race you will ever see,” according to the Baltimore Sun.
But Stevens is not just a playwright. He is an award-winning film and television writer, producer, and director.
The son of Academy Award-winning director George Stevens and actress Yvonne Howell, Stevens was born in 1932 in Los Angeles, California, with the passion for the arts in his blood. The glamorous city of Hollywood was the perfect place to become involved in filmmaking, and so Stevens began his career with the help of his filmmaker father. He worked as a production assistant to his director father for films A Place in the Sun, Shane, and Giant.
According to oscars.org, Stevens confessed that he wanted to be a sports writer, and that he actually didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps. However, it seemed that he was made to follow the film path, and he is now said to be one of America’s most influential filmmakers.
He spent two years serving in the U.S Air Force, but drew on his background in film and was tasked with directing training films. After returning from the military, he was the associate producer of The Diary of Anne Frank.
In 1961, Stevens was recruited by the United States Information Agency, and he relocated to Washington, D.C., to become the Director of USIA’s Motion Picture Service. Stevens said that he was drawn to the glamor of the Kennedy administration although he felt he was “a bizarre choice for the USIA job.”
In five years, he supervised the production of 1,500 films, two of which were Day of Drums (designated as one of the Ten Best Films of the Year by the National Board of Review), and Nine from Little Rock, which was an Academy-Award winning documentary.
In 1967, he founded the American Film Institute, which is an organization that educates filmmakers and honors the heritage of the motion picture art in the United States. He also created the Independent Filmmaker Program in 1967, which was the first American film program offering grants exclusively to independent filmmakers.
Stevens created the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award and the instigator of the Kennedy Center Honors. In 2009, Barack Obama named him to be the co-chairman of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.
Stevens also created the Kennedy Center Honors, which ran for thirty-seven consecutive annual shows, aired by CBS, which received several Emmy nominations. In 1982, he created Christmas in Washington, which ran for thirty-three years on NBC (later moving to TNT network) and showcased top stars in Washington, D.C. Stevens’ career doesn’t stop here however, as he also published a book in 2006, called Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at The American Film Institute.
Although Thurgood was the first play he wrote and directed, it was nominated for a Tony Award. Throughout his fifty-year career, Stevens has won fourteen Emmys, and was awarded an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement in 2013. He has also been awarded eight Writers Guild awards, two Peabody Awards, and the Humanitas Prize.
According to Geva Theatre, he wrote Thurgood after he saw Henry Fonda’s play Darrow. “The idea of doing a play about Thurgood Marshall occurred to me,” Stevens said. “Barack Obama has one portrait in his office, and it’s of Thurgood Marshall. I saw [him speak to 1,500 students]. And the students were inspired and Thurgood’s memory was exalted.”
This wasn’t the only driving force to write the play. Stevens was having dinner with Sidney Poitier, an actor who spent time on Broadway in A Raisin in the Sun and desired to return to the scene, according to playbill.com. “In that princely way of his, [Poitier] looked at me and said, ‘I have not been on the stage since Raisin in the Sun forty years ago. I want to go back to Broadway.’ As I remember it now, I said, ‘How about I write a play about Thurgood Marshall?’ And I did.”
By the time Stevens finished writing, Poitier didn’t feel ready to act in the one-man play, and Laurence Fishburne was cast. This turned out to be an important call, as Fishburne’s performance earned him a Drama Desk Award and an Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Solo Performance, as well as the Tony nomination for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play.
Stevens was puzzled why Thurgood’s story hadn’t been told before. According to Playbill, he commented on the lack of acknowledgement Thurgood had received as a civil rights leader. “Maybe it wasn’t very obvious,” Stevens said. “Dr. King was obviously a great figure, but Marshall was his architect. Without Marshall, all that other stuff wouldn’t have taken place. Thurgood Marshall changed the law.”
Stevens said that Thurgood used the law to change the law, and that made it possible for so much that came after, and he wanted to tell that story.
The New York Times called the play “stirring and absorbing.”
“Thurgood may actually feel like a sweet escape to happier times, every bit as cheering (and a whole lot more edifying) than the giddiest of Broadway musicals,” Charles Isherwood from The Times said. “As I left, I found myself misty-eyed.”