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Legendary comedian/activist Dick Gregory is still going strong, touring regularly even at age 83. But if you’re interested in his life and career, an even better option than seeing him live might be the new off-Broadway play in which veteran actor Joe Morton inhabits Gregory’s persona with ferocious intensity. Written by Gretchen Law, Turn Me Loose is a compelling introduction to the iconic figure who achieved stardom more than half a century ago. Its producers include singer John Legend, who has also contributed a new song, “Marching in the Dark,” heard at the end of the show.
It’s certainly a tour-de-force vehicle for its star, an Emmy Award-winner for his role as Olivia Pope’s father on ABC’s hit sudser Scandal. Playing the comedian in various stages of his career, from the early 1960s to the present day, he doesn’t deliver an exact impression but certainly channels his subject’s biting delivery and sharp comic timing. The actor also effortlessly segues between playing Gregory as a dynamic young man and the elderly, stooped figure he is today.
In the opening scene, set in 1963, a white comic (John Carlin, who effectively plays various brief supporting roles including a heckler, cabbie and television interviewer) delivers a brief routine filled with corny one-liners. Then Gregory ambles onstage, holding a drink and a cigarette, delivering socially and politically charged jokes providing a marked contrast to the preceding act.
The play alternates between scenes showcasing Gregory’s brand of topical humor and dramatic interludes concerning momentous events in his life, including the death of a newborn son. The comic material — with topics ranging from Kennedy and Vietnam to Obama and inevitably dealing with race relations — is biting and funny, and Morton delivers it with impeccable forcefulness and timing.
Unless you’re a Gregory aficionado, it’s hard to tell how much of the text is original and how much is Gregory’s own words. But even if taken directly from the comedian’s act, not all of it works, such as when Morton instructs the audience to stand up and shout the N-word at him.
Most of the evening, though, delivers powerful moments, such as when Gregory is introduced before one of his landmark appearances at the Playboy Club with the words, “You may not like him, but you won’t forget him.” In another scene he turns down the opportunity to appear on The Tonight Show until he’s called personally by its host Jack Paar and assured a spot on the couch after his routine. He movingly describes his experiences working in the Civil Rights movement, including his close relationship with Medgar Evers, who was shot and killed two weeks after their last meeting and whose dying words give the play its title.
One of the most compelling segments depicts Gregory’s 1968 interview with an unctuous white journalist in which he explains why he no longer feels the need to be funny when confronting the vital issues of the day.
The play, which touches on the many phases of Gregory’s career — there’s even a lengthy monologue in which he espouses his philosophies about “toxic food” and other health-related matters — may be slightly too esoteric for non-fans. But even those not particularly interested in Dick Gregory would be foolish to pass up the opportunity to witness the remarkable performance by the play’s 68-year-old star whose energy doesn’t lag for a single moment.
Venue: Westside Theatre, New York
Cast: Joe Morton, John Carlin
Playwright: Gretchen Law
Director: John Gould Rubin
Set designer: Chris Barreca
Costume designer: Susan Hilferty
Lighting designer: Stephen Strawbridge
Sound designer: Leon Rothenberg
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