WATERTOWN — He enters slowly and haltingly, supported by a cane, an old man seemingly worn down by time. But when he begins to speak, his voice is strong and sure. He still has work to do, and it starts with telling his story.
Casting Johnny Lee Davenport as Thurgood Marshall in New Repertory Theatre’s production of “Thurgood’’ is an idea that is both inspired and entirely logical. Davenport delivers, as this exemplary actor invariably does, but to do so he has to rise above George Stevens Jr.’s paint-by-numbers script.
Davenport has the kind of ineffable stage presence that can’t be adequately described but needs to be experienced. He has a way of filling the space he’s in — and at New Rep’s Black Box Theater, it’s a small space — that has only partly to do with his imposing size and his rich, rolling, versatile voice.
His impact in live performance can be more directly traced to the way Davenport seems alive in every moment of a play and alert to exploring every possible corner of the characters he plays — including, crucially, their humor. However serious the subject, Davenport seldom succumbs to solemnity. His Thurgood Marshall is every inch the happy warrior, although the ideals that animated Marshall also shine through in Davenport’s passionate portrayal.
Marshall was a giant. Once described by The New York Times as “the most influential civil rights lawyer of the century,’’ he argued 32 cases before the US Supreme Court and won 29 of them. One, of course, was the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case that outlawed racial segregation in public schools. In 1967, after serving as solicitor general for two years, Marshall became the first African-American appointed to the Supreme Court, where he served for 24 years.
The New Rep production of “Thurgood,’’ smoothly directed by Benny Sato Ambush, arrives at an uncommonly fraught moment for civil rights. The play officially opened on the eve of confirmation hearings for Senator Jeff Sessions, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general.
In the mid-1980s, the nomination of Sessions to the federal bench foundered because he was accused of making racist remarks (claims he labeled “damnably false’’ at Tuesday’s hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee). Sessions has denounced same-sex marriage and voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. Now he is in line to become the nation’s top law enforcement official, with responsibility for safeguarding civil rights.
Against that grim backdrop, “Thurgood’’ carries extra weight as it traces Marshall’s remarkable journey. If only “Thurgood’’ were less schematic and doggedly chronological and more imaginative in fleshing out the man who took that journey. That is where Davenport proves indispensable.
The actor thoroughly inhabits the character of Marshall, whether Marshall is describing the lifelong effect of seeing black prisoners being beaten by white police officers when he was a high-schooler in Baltimore, the time he was arrested on a trumped-up charge and nearly lynched in Tennessee when he was a young lawyer representing black defendants, or his wracking guilt at spending so much time on the road that he wasn’t aware his first wife was ill with the cancer that would eventually claim her life.
The play’s focus is on the people and experiences that shaped Marshall in the years before President Lyndon Johnson nominated him to the Supreme Court in 1967. (Davenport does some vivid impressions of LBJ, offering glimpses not just of the president’s shrewdness and larger-than-life personality but also his commitment to racial justice, opposition be damned — all of which, of course, were illuminated much more fully in “All the Way,’’ starring Bryan Cranston.)
The set design at New Rep by Ryan Bates evokes those years with a collage of framed photos, tilted at an angle, that include a lynching victim dangling at the end of a rope; Langston Hughes, the great poet who was a college classmate of Marshall; Howard University School of Law dean Charles Hamilton Houston, a mentor whose views on how to combat discrimination greatly influenced Marshall; and Homer Plessy, the plaintiff in Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court decision that upheld the legality of state segregation laws.
Across the top of a rear wall at New Rep are the words engraved on the front of the Supreme Court Building in Washington — words, this play reminds us, that Thurgood Marshall fought harder than anyone to make a reality: “Equal justice under law.’’
Play by George Stevens Jr. Directed by Benny Sato Ambush. Presented by New Repertory Theatre. At the Black Box Theater, Mosesian Center for the Arts, Watertown, through Feb. 5. Tickets $19-$42, 617-923-8487, www.newrep.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.