Dick Gregory, the comedian and civil rights activist who died this year, played the role of the Shakespearean fool to white America, quipping subversive sentiments about race relations in a manner that made his audience chuckle even as they were being stung by the truth.
A stand-up comic who drew from the examples of Mark Twain and Will Rogers, Gregory delivered political satire with a folksy touch. His relaxed everyman quality disarmed. His ability to make people laugh allowed him to escape the consequences of making them think.
Clips of Gregory plying his comic trade can be found online, but video muffles the danger of his live performances. The threat was not just from hecklers but from white supremacists simmering silently in the back of the club.
“Turn Me Loose,” a play by Gretchen Law that opened last weekend at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts under the direction of John Gould Rubin, re-creates the tense atmosphere in which Gregory intrepidly worked. Veteran actor Joe Morton (“Scandal”), reprising his critically acclaimed off-Broadway performance, plays Gregory as a tightrope walker on a mission.
After every joke, Morton’s Gregory pauses ever so slightly to see whether the reaction will be laughter or fury. His ears always seem pricked for baying dogs. But even when the mood in the room he’s playing turns ominous, he knows he must keep moving forward. Wisecracking through his panic, he sends up the irrationality menacing him. Surviving a gig is as satisfying to him as getting asked back.
The play bounces between signal moments of the 1960s and more recent times. The result isn’t so much a biographical drama as a composite portrait of an artist who integrated his activism into his act.
The triumphs and tragedies are recounted to flesh out the picture of a life thrust inexorably into the social justice movement. The death of his son and the murder of his friend and civil rights comrade Medgar Evers (whose dying words give the play its title) strengthen his resolve to make a political difference. When Gregory is invited to appear on “The Tonight Show” with Jack Paar, he accepts only on the condition that he can sit on the couch after his set like the white guests. No matter how much he needs the money and craves the fame, he will not sacrifice his conscience for professional ambition.
Morton is closer in appearance to Gregory in his solidly built prime than the lanky white-haired older gentleman who sometimes gave the impression of a gentle Jeremiah. The focus of “Turn Me Loose” is on the continuity in Gregory’s humor, which never lost its scalding relevance.
Indeed, the remarks on economic inequality and racial injustice seem as though they were written expressly for today. In a scene set at a San Francisco venue in 1968, Gregory warns an interviewer (played by John Carlin, who gamely assumes a number of broadly sketched secondary roles), “I’m tellin’ you if the conservatives in this country get a foothold, the middle class is going down.” The vision that made Gregory so funny was also what made him so alarmingly prescient.
Rubin’s staging draws out the fluid theatricality of Law’s script. The Wallis’ Lovelace Studio Theater has been partly turned into a nightclub. Cafe tables for theatergoers are arranged in front of the stage. The set by Chris Barreca simulates the dark, no-frills playing conditions that put nothing between a dangerous comedian and his equally formidable audience.
Standing at the microphone with a cigarette he subtly wields like an accusatory finger, Gregory has no place to hide. A little round table with a bottle of booze and a phone evokes the loneliness backstage. Whether campaigning for voting rights or doing a set at the Playboy Club in Chicago before a rough audience of Southerners attending a frozen food convention, Gregory is shown to be performing for his very life.
But even more than that, he’s performing for the betterment of America. A hero wearing the mask of a clown, Gregory understood the seriousness of his comedy. “Turn Me Loose” pays homage to his sneaky genius and unwavering commitment, and Morton’s portrayal reveals the anger, love and devastating sanity that set this prophetic comic apart.
“You ever get the feeling that the planet is wobbling?” Gregory asks in the last year of his life. Yes. Which is why this dose of Dick Gregory is so salubrious right now.
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‘Turn Me Loose’
Where: Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Lovelace Studio Theater, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays; ends Nov. 19
Tickets: $60-$75 (prices subject to change)
Info: (310) 746-4000 or www.thewallis.org/TML
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes (no intermission)
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