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Judges tell Thurgood Marshall’s story in a one-act play

Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell will play Thurgood Marshall during a one-act play Feb. 25.

Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell will play Thurgood Marshall during a one-act play Feb. 25.

The year is 1952, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund brain trust is sitting in a dark room playing poker.

On the table are cards, chips, cigars, ashtrays, a whiskey bottle, and four glasses — three half-filled with “whiskey” and one with juice, according to the stage directions — and Spottswood Robinson likes his hand. Walter White’s in, too. Robert L. Carter turns to the main character, Thurgood Marshall.

“So, Thurgood,” says Carter. “What do you think about our odds?”

“Mr. Carter, my deputy counsel,” Marshall answers, “we’re in big trouble.”

Robinson and White remain confident about their chances until Marshall, now speaking from a lit stage, shows his cards: He has “a boat,” also known as a full house, that is, three-of-a-kind and a pair.

“Read ’em and weep, boys,” Marshall says, laughing as he collects his winnings. “Read ’em and weep. White, you’re the showboat, but I’m the real deal. Carter, you think you want my job, but you can’t handle the pressure.”

Marshall deals again and the four men continue bantering until the phone rings. It’s Marshall’s first wife, Buster. And in addition to chastising him for gambling, she has news: The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear Brown v. Board.

Thus begins “Full Truth,” a one-act play about the life of the first African-American Supreme Court justice, written by Paul Handy, an administrative law judge in Washington, D.C.

On Thursday evening, as part of Black History Month, a handful of Maryland and D.C. judges will put on their rendition of the work at Bowie State University to raise money for a local college fund, the Elder Theodore L. Barber Scholarship Foundation Inc., which has, to date, awarded more than $40,000 to 70 students. Claudia Barber, another D.C. ALJ whose community-activist father’s memorial foundation will receive the proceeds from ticket sales, assembled the fifth cast to perform the play since 2007.

Two trailblazers

At Barber’s request, Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, who is the first African-American to serve as the state’s top jurist, will play Marshall, a fellow Baltimore native. Although Bell said he met Marshall at only a pair of official events before his death in 1993, Marshall was one of Bell’s state appellate lawyers in Bell v. Maryland, a landmark Supreme Court case that began when Bell, among others, staged a sit-in at a downtown Baltimore restaurant and were arrested for trespassing.

Reached Friday, Bell seemed confident about his fellow cast members, and despite having rehearsed only once last week, he predicted a successful demonstration of what made Marshall “tick.”

“I’m not memorizing lines,” said Bell, who admitted his acting experience is minimal. “It’s really a dramatic reading of a play designed to give you some insight into Thurgood Marshall — what made him tick, and particularly focusing on the interrelationship between him and the lawyers who worked with him on Brown.”

Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown will play Robinson, who would go on to argue the landmark desegregation case before the Supreme Court and become the first African-American chief judge of the District of Columbia Circuit Court.

A chance to re-learn history

Robert Carter, who also argued Brown and became a federal judge, will be played by Prince George’s County District Judge Thurman H. Rhodes. Walter White, the longtime executive secretary of the NAACP whose tenure saw the founding of the LDF and the Brown victory, will be played by Prince George’s County Circuit Judge Larnzell Martin Jr.

“Pretty much those were available and we were agreeable to taking one of those two roles,” Martin said, adding that he, too, is not an actor. Martin, who said he read the script over one of the recent snow days, said he is “gaining a lot more from participating in the reading than Ms. Barber and Mr. Handy … are from having me participate.”

“I’m intrigued about the apparent tension between Carter and …” Martin said, pausimg. “I started to say, ‘Judge Bell,’” he said, before correcting himself. “Marshall.”

He said he was also “intrigued and impressed” by the “apparent admiration” Marshall had for John W. Davis, opposing counsel in Brown. And both Martin and Barber said the audience would be surprised to hear how close Marshall came to being killed because of his connection with the case.

“There is a point where he was treated very much like the Mississippi Burning situation,” Barber said, referring to the film about the murders of three civil rights workers in 1964. “He was taken down some dark roads by some sheriffs, and they were going to execute him.”

Instead, Marshall went on to win the case, serve 24 years on the nation’s highest court and, posthumously, lend his name to, among other sites, the library at the law school that refused to admit him 80 years ago because he was black.

Nicholas Cobbs, another Washington ALJ, will play Davis; U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan K. Gauvey will play the University of Maryland admissions officer who denied Marshall a place at the Baltimore law school; Prince George’s County Circuit Judge Sheila Tillerson-Adams will play Marshall’s first wife, Vivian, and Prince George’s County Circuit Judge Albert Northrop will play the voice of the Supreme Court, an off-stage role.

Tickets are $20 for general admission and $10 for students with ID. The performance, which will be introduced by former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, begins at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Samuel Meyers Auditorium of the Martin Luther King Jr. Communications Art Center on Bowie’s campus.