by C. Denise Johnson

For the New Pittsburgh Courier

The really good actors are always looking for a challenge to test their mettle and flex their muscles. Montae Russell is such an actor.

If you check out “Thurgood,” the current production at Pittsburgh Public Theater, you’ll see an actor in a role of a lifetime portraying a flesh and blood American hero who impacted an entire nation, a man who was very much alive in the memory of most of us over 30.

For Russell, the lure of the role is the character he plays. “’Thurgood’ is about a man whose strength was in his determination in overcoming obstacles,” he says.”He was a rebel who would not accept the status quo of Jim Crow segregation.”

In preparing for this role, the Steel Valley High School and Pitt grad did extensive research on Marshall. “His father, who was an alcoholic, would spend his spare time in the back of courtroom observing trials; it was the strategic arguments that held his interest. He would later bring Thurgood with him. That is what sparked his interest in law.”

Marshall, a native of Baltimore, graduated from high school and enrolled in Lincoln University with the intention of becoming a dentist. However, an incident in a local movie house where he and other Lincoln students (including Langston Hughes) were to sit in the balcony became a turning point in his life, and the nation.

While it may be understandable to assume that “Thurgood” would be about the nation’s first Black Supreme Court Justice, the play is really about what shaped Marshall to later become the man who would integrate the Supreme Court of the United States.

It’s Marshall’s journey that is the meat of “Thurgood,” a one-man production that require an actor to play 25 different characters throughout the course of the play. The script, written by George Stevens (who also wrote the Emmy-Award winning “Separate But Equal,” a film starring Sidney Poitier as Thurgood Marshall), is what Russell refers to as a trilogy.

“Most people think of Brown v. Board of Education as a court case; but it’s really three separate court cases,” said Russell, “the initial court case that he lost, the appeal of that case, which he won and set the stage for the arguments before the Supreme Court.”

But there is a more intimate challenge for Montae Russell, actor. The Homestead native has another motive that’s close to his heart as an artist, performer and storyteller; and it’s personal.

“We don’t appreciate who and what we are or our accomplishments,” intones Russell. “We need to tell our own stories. We need to embrace ‘us’ (as a people) more.”

“And we need to appreciate and support the talent right here in Pittsburgh.”

“Thurgood continues through April 7, 2013 at Pittsburgh Public Theater at the O’Reilly Theater, Downtown. Tickets are $23-$55 (students and age 26 and younger $15.75 with valid ID). For performance times call 412-316-1600 or http://www.ppt.org

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