By Tulis McCall
Dick Gregory. Name ring a bell? Maybe not. I was at a party recently where I mentioned him, and the three people to whom I was speaking had no idea who he was. Seriously? A comedian who was and remains an iconic voice for civil rights, common sense and finding the truth no matter the cost? Who has been speaking out for around 50 years? Go figure.
In that case I can offer you two venues. You can go see Joe Morton in Turn Me Loosenow at the Westside Theatre, where he portrays Gregory. OR you can go see Gregory in person, because he is very much alive, at Caroline’s this weekend. Either way you win.
Turn Me Loose is not so bad as a biography. Gretchen Law has constructed a well thought out path and Joe Morton, under the direction of John Gould Rubin, trust the material and the story. And it is the story, as opposed to the man, that we take with us. Gregory is his own creation. By the time we met him it is in the 1960’s and he is beginning a successful, if precarious, career. He uses the “N” word liberally (and still does) because it is his right. His first book, an autobiography, had that as the title so that every time someone used the epithet it was advertising for Gregory’s book.
Gregory was smarter by half than many of his contemporaries – or let’s just day he was willing to say what others were not. “I wouldn’t mind payin’ my fair share of taxes if I knew they were goin’ to a friendly country.”
It was probably inevitable that he became involved with the Medgar Evers and was, like Evers, aware that his own death was a discount possibility. It was only because of the death of his son, which took him back home, that he believes he missed a bullet like the ones that took down Evers.
When he was contracted for the Playboy Club in Chicago, and then asked not to perform because the audience was frozen food execs from the south, he refused to forgo the performance. His performance that night won him a 3 year contract. When Jack Parr invited him to appear on the original Tonight Show he refused, citing Parr’s habit of shooing other black performers off the stage and saving the couch for the whit folk. Gregory ended up appearing and sitting on the couch.
Slowly the script turns into a call to arms. Gregory is not preaching color, he is preaching about power and how we ALL have abdicated.
“… there’s only a handful of real white people on the planet. Like Putin. …. The Koch brothers. And the rest of you are all imposters. Because bein’ white ain’t got nothin’ to do with color….White is an attitude!
I believe that information is salvation — and that truth is attainable if you search for it.”
What happened in Watts (riots) didn’t make the people criminal. The conditions that produced Watts, were and are criminal. The disgrace is having a problem that can be solved and a country that refuses to solve it.”
Soon he is talking about health and nutrition because once you start out on a path looking for the truth it will bring you back home to your own house, your own body. (He guided the singer/producer John Legend back to health.) He is to determined a man to suffer hypocricy – especially in himself.
Morton’s performance is fluid as he handles the four decade jumps throughout the script. (And he is ably assisted by the very versatile John Carlin who takes on a number of important roles) However, he fluctuates wildly in his physical representation of Mr. Gregory. Rarely is he able to drop his silken baritone to achieve Gregory’s higher pitched and scratchy voice. In addition his bent, shuffling depiction of the present Gregory is wildly off base. Gregory is a health guru and shuffle is the last thing you will see him do.
This show still leaves the audience inspired and shattered – which is the intent. Perhaps some of them will head over to YouTube and watch Gregory performing in the Louis Black Bill Of Rights Comedy Concert. Or perhaps, like me, they will make a reservation at Caroline’s for June 4th or 5th. Sadly that appearance is not yet sold out.
TURN ME LOOSE Written by Gretchen Law; Directed by John Gould Rubin
WITH Joe Morton and John Carlin
Scenic design by Tony Award-winner Chris Barreca (Rocky), costume design by Tony Award-winner Susan Hilferty (Wicked), lighting design by Stephen Strawbridge, and sound design by Tony Award-winner Leon Rothenberg (The Nance).
Presented by John Legend, Get Lifted Film Co, Mike Jackson, Jackie Judd, The Private Theatre, Eric Falkenstein, Ron Simons, Beth Hubbard, Elliot Osagie, Mary Ellen Lorenzo, Czekaj Artistic Productions, Peter Askin, Jamie Deroy, Mike Fine, Ken Wirth, Susan & Elinor Tatum, Richard Winkler
westsidetheatre.com through July 3