“Don’t get me wrong, I do care about this country,” Joe Morton as comedian Dick Gregory says in Turn Me Loose. “Where else but in America can a poor black boy like Michael Jackson grow up to be a rich, white man?”
Gregory was himself a poor black boy, with “a fast mouth and fast feet.” The fast feet got him a track scholarship to college; the fast mouth turned him into a wildly successful stand-up comic: “In 1961 I was putting cardboard on my feet to keep out the cold,” Morton tells us, “and by 1962, I owned more shoes than I could ever wear and was buying new suits as if they was jelly beans.”
His edgy, bluntly topical humor had newspapers calling him “the Negro Lenny Bruce,” Morton as Gregory tells us. But “you gotta’ read those Congo papers, where they calling Lenny Bruce — the white Dick Gregory.”
But Gregory was always something more than a comedian. Even as an ambitious rising young comic, he didn’t lose sight of his principles. He turned down repeated invitations to appear on the Tonight Show, because no black comedian had ever been invited after their performance to sit on the couch and chat with host Jack Paar, as the white comedians were routinely invited to do. Paar relented, and Gregory became the first black comic to pal around with Paar.
Gregory long ago ceded the nightclub and TV talk show circuits to contemporaries like Richard Pryor (who called Gregory “the greatest…and the first.”) and successors like Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock (who has called “the great” Dick Gregory’s autobiography his favorite book.) As Joe Morton puts it in Turn Me Loose, looking at the mirror of his dressing room, “you chose doomed righteousness.”
Now 83, with an Old Testament long white beard, Gregory can look back at a whirlwind life as social critic, author, political candidate (for mayor of Chicago and president of the United States), diet entrepreneur, father of ten children and long-time activist, starting in the Civil Rights movement: He marched alongside Martin Luther King, and befriended Medgar Evers, last seeing him two weeks before Evers was murdered.
All of this is part of Turn Me Loose, which jumps around in time. But one leaves this 90-minute play by Gretchen Law thinking of it as a stand-up comedy routine more than a biographical drama. This is in part because the play doesn’t emphasize the biography, going into few details, especially in the past half century of Gregory’s life. But it’s mostly because of Joe Morton, an accomplished stage and film actor best known now as Olivia Pope’s father in the TV series Scandal, who turns out to have terrific comic delivery.
Many of the scenes re-create Gregory’s routines from his heyday, taking place either in nightclubs or on TV. The audience is frequently cast as his nightclub audience from the early 1960’s, and seeded on occasion with white hecklers, all portrayed by John Carlin: There is one memorable if somewhat awkward scene early in his career in which he is playing in Chicago to a room full of hostile Southern frozen food conventioneers.
Since Gregory’s humor is topical, Turn Me Loose becomes something of a history play, or at least a period piece:
“’We don’t serve colored people here!’” he recalls a waitress in Mississippi telling him. “Well I don’t eat colored people!” he replied.
“Down south, if you colored and want to vote? They make you take a test. On nuclear physics. In Russian! Then if you pass the test, they say, ‘Hey boy! You can’t vote! Because if you can read in Russian? You must be a Communist!’”
The play does jump on occasion to the present day, which gives Gregory a chance to tell old people jokes (with Morton subtly but perceptibly shifting his body to register a credible advance in years.) “All I know is I’m getting old. You know how I can tell? I go into a diner and order a three minute egg and they make me pay up front.”
Even now, much of his humor hasn’t lost its edge, as the Michael Jackson joke makes clear. But if, like the best socially conscious comedians, Dick Gregory always made people uncomfortable – intentionally so, of course – it may unnerve people for a different reason today. Morton uses the N-word close to 50 times in Turn Me Loose. That word was the title of Gregory’s 1964 autobiography. The Gregory in Turn Me Loose riffs on the reasons for that title: “I really named my book…for my momma. So that every time she heard that word, she would know that they were advertising my book.”
I recall that when my 7th grade English teacher Mrs. Levinson taught Dick Gregory’s autobiography to our class years after it was published, she never once uttered its title. Years after that, I covered a speech by Dick Gregory and used the word several times in quoting him in the article for the Kentucky newspaper where I was working – something that I’ve regretted doing ever since.
After a visit to Africa, Richard Pryor swore off the N-word, which he had used as promiscuously in his act as Gregory did. It would have been interesting to have heard in Turn Me Loose what Gregory has to say now about it, rather than what he said 50 years ago. But Turn Me Loose is an entertainment, and so his serious views — some of them still controversial, many now more or less mainstream consensus – are presented here fleetingly, with little context and without challenge, largely as free-floating rants.
Joe Morton handles the rants the way he handles the humor and the few moving moments — which is to say, persuasively.
Turn Me Loose is on stage at Westside Theater (407 West 43rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10036, between 9th and 10th Avenues)
Tickets and details
Turn Me Loose by Gretchen Law, featuring Joe Morton and John Carlin. Directed by John Gould Rubin, scenic design by Chris Barreca, costume design by Susan Hilferty, lighting design by Stephen Strawbridge, sound design by Leon Rothenberg . Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.