Dick Gregory was never afraid to speak truth to those who most needed to hear it. Even when it fell like acid rain.
Gregory—the rebel comedian who paved the way for provocative, black funny men—ended his comedy career in the 1970s, yet, old and young alike know his face. It appears besides MLK and other civil rights activists in history pages and in pop culture, but not always alongside his iconic words—spoken like pure poetry in stand-up routines, lectures, and interviews. Some of the best, long buried deep in the bowels of the Internet and YouTube, are now front and center in Turn Me Loose.
Highlighting moments from his pioneering turn in the 1960s—when he became the first black comedian to sit on The Tonight Show couch—and jumping to the recent past, when he lectured on social activism and healthy eating, with humor, and reflected on his road from child to comic to civil rights crusader. Turn Me Loose is a cool, slick, and powerful production. It’s a pared down set with a jazz club feel that sets the mood for a seemingly wayward journey. But like good jazz, there is flow and rhythm that moves you: mind, body, and soul.
Gregory, played by Edwin Lee Gibson, stands in a tailored suit, often with a glass of scotch and cigarette in hand, and marches us through a myriad of night clubs, studios, dressing rooms, and auditoriums, making waves by wryly joking about segregation, the KKK, and poverty. Without apology. But also without sermonizing. Instead, he uses satire to turn the tables on the oppressor. His observations are astute. His wit unmatchable. His intellect pure. And the words, the words of Turn Me Loose, delivered with verve and precision by Gibson, are all Gregory’s.
Turn Me Loose
closes October 21, 2018
Details and tickets
Gibson is an alluring figure who seems to have transcended the astral plane to embody Gregory fully—his passion, his pain, his youth, and, as he nears death, his aged body. From the way he holds his mouth to the way he swings his hips, he is Gregory in a nuanced, engaging performance that makes you feel a part of something profound. John Carlin, the only other actor in the show, plays multiple characters–cabbie, emcee, heckler, and interviewer. He is as a background presence at every turn, ebbing at the right moments and stepping back, his face a contorted mess of emotions as he interacts (often as an opposition force) with Mr. Gregory the comedian and Mr. Gregory the activist.
We didn’t write Turn Me Loose. My dad’s life wrote Turn Me Loose.” – Christian Gregory
You may be familiar with much of the material—the moments in Gregory’s life, from being a shoeshine boy to being a college athlete to being a soldier and the deaths of his infant son and dear friend Medgar Evers. Yet, the rawness of his emotion–deftly channeled by Gibson–about each elevates them to a crossroad that not only defines Gregory as a man, but America as a troubled nation unwilling to confront injustice and, in the process, (and here I steal his thoughts) becoming injustice itself. Gregory may as well have been writing in 2018, instead of 1960-something, and that is what makes this play timely. It throws into focus the gloom of the America we live in today, which is walking itself back to 1953. Sadly, Mr. Gregory will not be there to greet us, he passed in 2017, but his (mostly) provocative ideas and humor will.
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Here’s my caveat for that “mostly.” Gregory—speaking in his later years—clearly has disdain for the current president, who he sees as part of a poverty-driven agenda to keep Americans divided and conservatives in power. Yet, he hobnobbed with the infamous Alex Jones (currently being sued for defamation), to push conspiracy theories and the “truth movement.” Jones helped elect Trump, who, in turn, expressed great admiration for Jones. This is a strange circle of associates, and its discovery during my research sunk my stomach like the Bismarck.
The Jones association is a blip that can’t undermine Gregory’s contribution to comedy and causes. Like how he points out the unequal use of euphemisms to describe black crime versus white crime. If we can call the stealing and destruction of property the “Boston Tea Party” with a straight face, we ought to refer to black men stealing TVs as a “Friday Night Fish Fry.” And, why is it a “school shooting” in mostly white schools and a “drive-by” in mostly black schools? “Black Power” scared the crap out of people, but Gegory asked what if it had been “Brown Strength” instead. Gregory understood words. Knew their influence over people. And used them to push civil rights first and foremost. For that, we will always be indebted to Dick Gregory.
“One day,” he says near the end of the show and as an old man, “all the ledgers will be balanced.” Then, he pushes, there will only be one final question you should ask yourself: “How much service did you give to your fellow human being?”
Dick Gregory was a genius. And this show captures his brilliance with mesmerizing effect. Moving and funny, Turn Me Loose is a necessary, authentic, and satisfying portrait of a man and the America he dared to confront. It also feels a shade shy of dangerous. Just like Gregory himself, sitting in a segregated Mississippi diner, challenging a trio of white men to come at him.
Christian Gregory, son of Dick Gregory:
Turn Me Loose by Gretchen Law. Directed by John Gould Rubin, Featuring Edwin Lee Gibson and John Carlin. Production: Christi B. Spann, Assistant Stage Manager; Christopher Barreca, Set Designer; Susan Hilferty, Costume Designer; Stephen Strawbridge, Lighting Designer; Leon Rothenberg, Sound Designer; Kim James Bey, Vocal Coach; Jack Doulin and Victor Vazquez, Casting Directors; Sarita Fellows, Associate Costume Designer; Gahyae Ryu, Associate Sound Designer; Eugene Yen Shih-Lien, Associate Set Designer and Video Designer; Natalie Bell, Technical Director; Joseph P. Salasovich, Costume Director; Christopher V. Lewton, Master Electrician; Timothy M. Thompson, Sound Director; Manna-Symone Middlebrooks, Directing Assistant; JJ Hersh, Stage Management Fellow; Mick Coughlan, Show Carpenter; Kyle Handziak, Props; Brian Flory, Light Board Operator; Nora Matthews, Follow Spot Operator; Reid Moffat, Sound Board Operator; Alina Gerall, Wardrobe Supervisor; Dawson Tailors, Tailoring. Stage Managed by Erin Cass. Produced by Arena Stage . Reviewed by Kelly McCorkendale.