Singer John Legend, who’s turning up the heat as a backer of socially relevant material across various media, announced today that Scandal star and Tony Award nominee Joe Morton will play comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory in Turn Me Loose, opening off-Broadway in May. The comedic drama by Gretchen Law begins previews May 3 and opens May 19 at the Westside Theatre on West 43rd Street. Legend is co-producing with Mike Jackson, in association with Get Lifted Film Company.

Joe Morton“It’s a beautiful piece of work,” Morton said, “The conflict, basically, is watching this man who broke the color line on television in terms of being a comedian morph into becoming the activist he eventually became.”

John Gould Rubin will direct, and the cast also features John Carlin. Legend also is writing an original song for the show. Asked what drew him to the project, Legend said, “People like Dick Gregory, Paul Robeson, Harry Belafonte and Nina Simone show me what the definition of an artist is – it isn’t just to make art but to speak truth to what’s happening, speak beauty into the world, speak love into the world and also … get involved.”

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Joe Morton is also an Emmy award winner.

Gregory, 83, is a groundbreaking comic who took on subjects of poverty, war, racism and bigotry in a way that engaged rather than harangued audiences. But he cut back a lucrative and successful show business career for a life of sacrifice and danger alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and other Civil Rights leaders. Wielding razor-sharp wit, Gregory hacked away at myths about race, poverty, war and politics. Over the decades, he staged widely publicized and sometimes life-threatening hunger strikes to draw attention to his causes.

In a recent interview President Obama called Gregory one of his two favorite comics ever. The other was Richard Pryor, who himself said, “Dick Gregory was the greatest and he was the first.”

Turn Me Loose features scenic design by Tony winner Chris Barreca (Rocky), costume design by Tony winner Susan Hilferty (Wicked), lighting design by Stephen Strawbridge and sound design by Tony winner Leon Rothenberg (The Nance).