James Craven tackles role as historical giant in ‘Thurgood’

Arts no chaserVeteran actor James Craven stands as a singular talent in Twin Cities theatre. He richly deserves the triumphant hour that will be his starring in Thurgood, as historic agent of social change, Thurgood Marshall. Marshall as an attorney, won the landmark Brown vs Board of Education, and later became the first African American to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.

James Craven
James Craven

It goes without saying that taking the stage as such a titanic figure calls for extraordinary ability. Artists who’ve preceded Craven in the role are James Earl Jones in the world premiere, and Laurence Fishburne on Broadway and in the television film for HBO. Audiences have every reason to look forward to Craven, a master craftsman, holding his own in such select company.

For a frame of reference, consider that Craven is a founding company member of Penumbra Theatre, which has long been nationally renowned as one of the most important places an actor can work this side of the fabled Negro Ensemble Company. He has performed in more productions there than any other actor, brandishing an inimitable quality seen in virtually every August Wilson play, along with such contemporary classics as Keith Glover’s soul stirring drama Coming of the Hurricane, and Gus Edward’s hysterically heartwarming comedy, Louie and Ophelia, opposite Regina Marie Williams.

Reached by email, Craven reflects on what he finds most challenging about taking on the role. “For me, it’s an issue of stamina. Performing the role of an historic giant takes enormous energy, breath, concentration and control. It’s a one-man show. There’s no rest area ahead for the casual, laid back performance style…and no want or need for it. The actor must drive through with direction and passion….and seem effortless, while doing so.”

What does he find most rewarding about the role? “I find treasure in the research about the events surrounding the push for desegregation,” stated Craven. “Little things — nuggets, names and nuances. I keep them close and distill them in my characterization chamber, under lock and key.”

Of course, one also has to consider Thurgood Marshall himself, and the difference he made, changing the very course of American life.  Illusion Theater co-producing director Michael Robins, who takes Craven through his paces in his production, shared in an email, “To honor the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the recent 50th anniversary of the Civil Right Act of 1964, and soon to commemorate 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965…I’m excited that we are able to bring this potent play to the Illusion stage.

“It’s fitting that we are spotlighting one of our country’s biggest civil rights champions and are using this production as a catalyst for audience discussion of how his life’s work inspires us today.” Robins further reflects, “Last year, we did a play on attorney Clarence Darrow, who tackled racism and social injustice in the early 1900s. We found out about [this play] and really connected with it. It fits with the Illusion mission so well and it has a great role for an African American actor. The core issues of civil rights, equality and equity in the schools, and protecting the individual right to vote are all issues that are still present in our lives. And so I leapt at the chance to work on a play that explores these matters in such a human and insightful way.”

Thurgood is running from March 6-15 at Illusion Theater. Tickets are $20-35.  Group discounts are available for groups of 10 or more people. Tickets are available at the Illusion Theater box office at 612-339-4944 or online at www.illusiontheater.org.