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Turn Me Loose

by Elizabeth Ahlfors

Joe Morton as Dick Gregory

Joe Morton as Dick Gregory.  Photo by Monique Carboni, divisiveness.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

With nonstop concentration for 90 minutes, actor Joe Morton inhabits the fierce persona of comedian/activist Dick Gregory. Gretchen Law's off-Broadway bio-drama, Turn Me Loose, alternates between periods in Gregory's life from the 1960s to the present. Under the direction of John Gould Rubin, Morton (TV's Scandal) shows his penchant for sharp comic timing and caustic dynamism and delivers a pièce de résistance that has palpable relevance today.

Dick Gregory has been an icon of smashing boundaries and speaking out, and at age 83, he is still at it. He reached stardom in the early 1960's. Just before he hit it big, a white comic (John Carlin in one of his various supportive roles) delivered some jokes remindful of the milder comedy of the era. ("I was so ugly when I was born, the doctor slapped my mother.") Standup comedy was to change when he introduced Dick Gregory, who meandered to the stage holding a cigarette and sipping from a glass of whiskey.

"I can see that quite a few of you northern liberals are here tonight. Come out to see a real n***** do his thing." That "n" word was repeated many times through the play. In fact, he named his first book N*****, for his mother, "so that every time she heard that word, she would know that they were advertising my book."

His comedy career escalated with a major gig at the Playboy Club. Holding his own against an audience of drunken Southern hecklers, his performance extended from one to six hours. Later he got a phone call from Jack Paar, at the time king of late night television. Very reluctantly, he turned down an offer to be on Paar's show, reminding Paar that black comics were booked only to do their routine and were never invited to sit on the couch and chat with the host. Paar agreed to change that and give Gregory chat time after his routine.

Gregory grew up well aware of race discord. It influenced his life and his humor, leading to an intense activism bringing him before political leaders, inserting him in major events, and overshadowing his personal life with his wife and children. Gradually, his focus on world events sharpened and a philosophy developed about capitalism, poverty, civil rights, Vietnam, war, politics and a recognition of his own poor nutrition. He stopped drinking and smoking and he developed a passion for food and health, eschewing meat, fish, chicken, butter, cheese, eggs or sugar, which he called, "cocaine of the food industry."

Civil rights activist, Medgar Evers, invited Gregory to join him in some civil rights rallies. In one compelling segment before a rally, Evers told Gregory to go home immediately because his baby son was dead. Once again, Gregory was not available when his wife and children needed him. Shortly after that last meeting, Gregory was heartbroken to learn that Evers was shot in front of his home. His last words were, "turn me loose," the title of this work.

Morton is as accomplished a monologist as he is a film/television and stage actor, commanding both as the sharp young humorist and as the older slower activist, stooped, his voice lighter but still imposing with authority and passion. Morton is quickly covered with sweat and spit, halting at times to mop his face with a handkerchief. The audience is gripped in moments of laughter and also nerve-racking discomfort.

Chris Barreca designed an all-purpose dark set with Stephen Strawbridge's imaginative lighting making it effective as a nightclub, college auditorium, TV studio and personal space. Directed by John Gould Rubin, fill-in supporting actor John Carlin moves easily into various roles as comedian, heckler, go-fer, and one smarmy San Francisco interviewer who questioned Gregory's changing humor.

Gregory responded, "When I go out and demonstrate for social changes, I don’t go out to tell jokes. I happen to be a firm believer that you can’t laugh social problems out of existence. We didn’t laugh Hitler out of existence. And the day we find a cure for cancer it won’t be through jokes."

While Gretchen Law's book has some ponderous segments with Gregory's rants, she presents a forceful picture of a consistent man of values and humor. Interesting is how pertinent this man remains. He has been commenting on this country and the world since 1960 and still hit relevant chords in 2016.

"Some white folks in America are too scared to be openly bigoted. So they’ve got to hide their bigotry. And they do that by callin’ it -- Conservatism!"

Turn Me Loose
Westside Theatre - Downstairs
407 W. 43rd St. NYC
Running time: 90 minutes
Written:  Gretchen Law
Directed: John Gould Rubin
Cast: Joe Morton.  Also John Carlin
Previews: May 3, 2016. Opened May 19, 2016. Closing extended to July 17, 2016
Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors