Even while he was alive, activist/comedian Dick Gregory already had been immortalized in drama. Turn Me Loose, Gretchen Law’s moving and often intense look at the life and work of the comedian and activist, premiered a year before Gregory’s death in August 2017, condensing more than a half century of his life into 90 minutes of absorbing theater. It now occupies the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage.
Actor Edwin Lee Gibson carries Gregory’s life from aspiring young comic to committed civil rights activist to elderly sage. He was one of the earliest – and edgiest – African American comedians to break through to a nationwide audience, and was sometimes called “the Black Lenny Bruce” – although Gregory quipped that he preferred to call Bruce “the white Dick Gregory.” But he carried the weight of being a black man in a country still emerging from the mire of Jim Crow, and the racism he experienced in his everyday life first drove his comedy and then his commitment to fighting racial oppression.
Gibson transforms himself from the young Gregory to the well-traveled octogenarian in an instant using no makeup or costumes, only his acting skills. As he leaps back and forth across the decades from the Kennedy years to the age of Trump, the audience experiences his growing social consciousness and his shift from funnyman to freedom fighter.
The play has its share of humor and inspirational moments, but it also can make audiences squirm. In a scene in which Gregory performs his standup act at Chicago’s Playboy Club in the early 1960s, a heckler (played by John Carlin, who portrays other supporting characters) peppers the comedian with the N-word and other racist invective. In an effort to disarm the man, Gregory jokes that the forbidden word doesn’t bother him because he gets paid extra when someone uses it against him. He then exhorts the audience – the Arena audience, drafted into playing the nightclub crowd – to scream out the word. Will they do it?
DSA members will especially appreciate some of the musings of the elder Gregory, especially his insight that racial divisions were concocted to divide the working class against itself. Here he opines that whiteness is merely an attitude and that there really are only three white people in the world: “Vladimir Putin, the Koch brothers and Mitch McConnell” -- his imperfect arithmetic failing to diminish his shrewd insight.
Turn Me Loose will continue to entertain and challenge audiences at Arena Stage through October 14.