As Edwin Lee Gibson prepares for the first performance of Turn Me Loose, a look into the life of comedian Dick Gregory, September 6th at Arena Stage, his dressing room is full of photos from Gregory’s long and noteworthy career.
“I have four pictures on the table, four laid on the drawer and five more on the dresser on the other side,” he says. “I’m constantly looking at these pictures, all from different eras and different kinds, some are close-ups, some are in crowds, some he is old, some he is young. I look at these pictures and figure out what each scene needs. I learn about him just by looking at these and wondering.”
Turn Me Loose debuted Off-Broadway at New York’s Westside Theater in 2016 with Scandal’s Joe Morton as the famed comedian. Gregory was still alive at the time, but has since passed, dying at the age of 84 last year in D.C.
The play, written by playwright Gretchen Law and directed by John Gould Rubin, shines a light on how Gregory was the first black comedian to expose white audiences to racial comedy. But it’s so much more than just about the laughs. In addition to confronting bigotry through his humor, Gregory was an activist, writer and considered a muckraker by some. He even ran for both mayor of Chicago and for president of the United States.
“The show is a series of different scenes—when he’s younger, older, and we see where he began and the trajectory of his career,” Gibson says. “We see what he began doing at the height of his career and the decision he makes as a result of meeting civil rights activist Medgar Evers.”
Gibson says he’s thrilled to be following in Morton’s footsteps, but believes takes his own unique approach on portraying this larger-than-life man.
Turn Me Loose
at Arena Stage
September 6 – October 14, 2018
Details and tickets
“Once I step into this, I want to craft the character and not try to do him but figure out what that embodiment is,” he says. “The story of Dick Gregory is really the story of a lot of brown skinned men in this country. The story of me and the choices we all have to make and how those can affect your livelihood and affect your life.”
Recently back from a nine-month stay in London and Paris working for director Peter Brook, Gibson learned of the show from his friend, Jack Doulin, a casting director in New York.
“I was just starting work on a play in Chicago when I got the call and he asked if I was interested in the piece,” Gibson says. “Having been a fan—I’ve been following Dick Gregory since I was 10 years old—I told him of course I was. A few days later, I got a phone call that I got it.”
Gibson notes he learned about Gregory in reverse order than most people do. He first learned about his Bahamian diet and the unique way he lived his life, a couple of years later he learned about his activism, and it wasn’t until his later teen years when he knew him as a comic.
Over the years, he became a bigger fan of both Gregory’s comedy and the message he was trying to portray.
“I learned about his spirit and what it took to do what he did and sustain that over his lifetime,” he says. “My tendency when doing a real character is not to do research because everything is in the script and my imagination. I had been watching videos over the years so I had that source material to draw on and that linked up with the script.”
Although he shares that taking on some of Gregory’s mannerisms and voice reflections is part of playing the role, it can’t be the most important thing.
“There are certain things that I want to do to remind people of him,” Gibson says, “but I didn’t want to mimic him. That would take far too long and I think they would much rather hear the story. I wanted to get the essence of this man and his story.”
While Gibson never leaves the stage once he enters, the show isn’t a one-man show as John Carlin plays select characters who interact with Gregory throughout. The actor also played these roles opposite Morton during the New York run.
For Gibson, doing solo-type shows is nothing new. In New York, he wrote and performed in several single-character solo pieces, and though he hasn’t exercised that solo muscle in about five years, being on stage for an entire performance doesn’t phase him.
And since this is a play about one of the top comedy minds of all-time, there’s certainly a chance for the audience to laugh as Gibson performs some of the routines that Gregory wowed his crowds with.
“I spent about seven years of being a road comic so I understand that; it was a side job for me when I wasn’t doing theater,” he says. “I’m been an actor for 38 years and having that opportunity has helped characters find a way into some of my work.”
Playing Gregory has turned into a dream for Gibson and he feels very fortunate to be “turned loose” on the Arena Stage.