Standup comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory’s rise to fame began when Hugh Hefner heard him address a nearly all-white Southern audience at a black-owned establishment and brought him to the Playboy Club. His big breakthrough came when he was invited to be the first African American guest to be seated on the famous couch at the Tonight Show. Whether you remember his scorching political satire, heard about it second-hand or are completely unfamiliar with his history, revisiting his work in Gretchen Law’s Turn Me Loose is an opportunity not to be missed. Hearing his words through a 2016 filter is a punch to the gut and a sad commentary on the one-step-forward-two-steps-back progression of race relations in this country.
On stage for a solid 90 minutes, award-winning actor Joe Morton is completely captivating in the lead. Given the still-living Gregory’s real bite, it’s a tall order. Yet Morton perfectly portrays a span of nearly 50 years solely with adjustments to his posture and a roughening of his voice. His total control of the audience never waivers as he gets them to rise to their feet in approval or recoil when requested to shout out the N word. Morton receives occasional and essential support from the versatile John Carlin as every background player including a heckler, cabbie, and radio interviewer.
Law’s script blends chapters of Gregory’s autobiography and clips of his routines with a touch of fiction to keep the storyline tight and clear. Chris Barreca’s adaptable set holds the audience’s attention firmly on the electricity generated by Morton’s performance and Gregory’s words. Director John Gould Rubin ensures that every audience member is treated to moments of direct eye contact with his star, helping each segment land with a thump. The design team of Susan Hilferty (costumes), Stephen Strawbridge ((lighting) and Leon Rothenberg (sound) moves the action seamlessly from club to studio to home. Unfortunately, the haze meant to recall the days when smoking was allowed is an unnecessary touch that leads to more coughing and watery eyes than nostalgia.
Turn Me Loose is playing at The Westside Theater through July 3, 2016. For Boomers, it provides a profound reacquaintance with the past. It is my hope that younger people will also flock to see Papa Pope of Scandal tear into something more worthy of attention than his daughter’s life. For tickets and information, visit http://www.turnmelooseplay.com.