If the only image that comes to mind at the mention of the name Dick Gregory is the skinny African American elder, his beaming visage ringed with a nimbus of white hair and beard, prepare for a restorative explosion. In one of the most astonishing performances of this or any season, Joe Morton, the stage-turned-Scandal star, plays the enduring comedian, activist, gadfly and author with a warmth and precision that has nothing to do with versimilitude and everything to do with passion, knowledge and chops.
Of course Dick Gregory is still very much with us, at 83, still jabbing at the “conventional wisdom,” the “preferred narrative” the “general assumptions,” Don Quixote forever tilting at windmills of prejudice, hate, greed and avarice, not to mention Southern crackers, Northern liberals, the death penalty and the Koch brothers. That Dick Gregory is very much present in Turn Me Loose, which begins in a nightclub some 50 years ago and switches between Gregory’s rise as an entertainer — first with a barrier-breaking gig at the Playboy Mansion in Chicago and then on the Jack Paar-hosted Tonight Show — and his concurrent activism in the Civil Rights Movement and, later, more global causes. The man who was so determined to neutralize the most common demeaning epithet for Negro that he made the word the title of his celebrated autobiography.
Gretchen Law’s seamless tapestry of performance and autobiography, which just opened at New York’s Westside Theatre, is a reminder that individuals matter and resistance against evil endures and can even be good for a laugh or two. It’s named for the last words spoken by Gregory’s friend and fellow activist Medgar Evers, murdered on his own front lawn as he returned from a meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — in the South of the ’60s, a radical organization.
“His family was inside watching President Kennedy give a speech on the TV,” Gregory recalls, sorrow hooding his eyes. “They ran outside and held his bloodied body in their arms until the ambulance came. When he reached the hospital he spoke his last words: Turn me loose.” The switchbacks between recollection and observation, past and present, take on a rhythmic, almost incantatory swell-and-ebb, drawing us into the story of a life sometimes drained of its capacity for humor, though never for long.
The intimate play is expertly staged by John Gould Rubin and features two extras: the fine performance by John Carlin playing various white hecklers, promoters, interviewers, etc. And a new song by John Legend to close the show, which he is also co-producing. But Turn Me Loose is nearly as much about Joe Morton as it is about Dick Gregory. Morton was one of the best stage actors of his generation — in 1974 he earned a Tony nomination for his memorable Walter Lee Younger in Raisin, the musical adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun — before turning his attention mostly to films and TV, where’s currently a star of Scandal, playing the father of Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington). But nothing could have prepared for his return to the stage in Turn Me Loose. Morton plays — no, inhabits — the life force that is Dick Gregory with passion, authority and astonishing power, with leonine grace covering the range from softly murmured memory to roaring anger and rage. It’s an unforgettable portrayal of an unforgettable man.