He is performing in Southern California after a 22-year hiatus, more than a generation, but comedian Dick Gregory wants to talk about anything but the past.
With the same sociopolitical fervor that made him a pioneering force of black comedy in the '60s, Gregory is running all over the current-events map--from Bosnia to Gov. Pete Wilson's presidential race bow-out to O.J. His conversation is part biting news analysis and part down-home sagacity, much like his trademark performance style--spontaneous, but sharp and deliberate. Little, in his view, is coincidence.
"We've heard 41 different cuts of 'nigger' during the O.J. trial, and the emergence of Colin Powell follows the end of it. He's on the cover of everything," says the man who threw the N-word in America's face long before the appearance of Richard Pryor. "You have one black man at the center of all this racial furor, the other a good soldier, completely the opposite. That's no accident."
The 63-year-old comic ruminates on this and many other topics in his new "Dick Gregory's One-Man Comedy Show," which kicked off a three-week run last Thursday at the Vision Complex Theatre in Central Los Angeles. The show premiered in New York and toured extensively in the East and Midwest before arriving here last week. As befits his reputation of social activism and self-help, Gregory is performing at actress Marla Gibbs' elegant, refurbished movie house that towers over Leimert Park as a local symbol of African Americans investing in their own communities.
Thin and gray-bearded, Gregory still has the same trenchant wit that rocked audiences back on their heels in the early '60s and made him the first blatantly political black comic to achieve mainstream success. He appeared regularly in top-name comedy clubs that catered to white audiences and performers and on popular television programs, including Jack Paar's talk shows. He published an autobiography in 1964 titled "Nigger," which, like his comedy, sought to explode social myths and stereotypes by confronting them head-on, holding them up to the light for extensive examination. The laughter of his racially mixed audiences may have been uneasy, but Gregory was forging new ground for a black comedian--consistently turning taboo subjects into potent comic material.
Through his many incarnations as comedian, civil-rights activist, anti-drug crusader and health guru, Gregory is clearly a man who acts on principle. He stopped performing in 1973 not because he tired of it ("I love performing . . . it's my dope"), but because, as a health and fitness devotee, he would not perform in places that allowed drinking and smoking. "I didn't want to be a part of it," he says firmly. "I said I would perform anywhere where there's no alcohol, that's all."
Though the decision all but killed his comedy career, Gregory took flight in other enterprises--notably the popular Bahamian Diet weight-loss program--and continued to appear as a lecturer at college campuses and sites across the country. When Broadway producer Ashton Springer approached Gregory last year about putting together a show that skirted the alcohol issue by playing in theaters rather than clubs, Gregory was instantly receptive. "I said, 'Great,' " he recalled. "Wasn't no other Broadway producers beating down my door."
Not surprisingly, Gregory's new act is liberally laced with references to the ill effects of poor nutritional and health habits. "The No. 1 problems in America are alcohol, cigarettes, food and inactivity," says Gregory emphatically, who once tipped the scales at 360 pounds and downed a fifth of whiskey daily. "Drugs are actually down on that list. I tell people that as they sit in their house worried about the drive-by shootings [while] smoking, drinking and eating, they're participating in the top three killers in this country."
During a show last weekend, Gregory regaled the audience with sobering thoughts that, in his hands, became objects of hilarity. Armed with only a microphone and a table behind him spread with newspapers that he used for reference--Gregory says he spends roughly seven hours a day reading them--he spent more than two hours addressing the travails of Sen. Bob Packwood and Mark Fuhrman, domestic violence, the origins of hurricanes ("They come out of West Africa, gather strength in the Caribbean, strike the East Coast of this country, but not Canada, a country that never had a single slave. Uh-huh."). This was a somewhat kinder, gentler Gregory, the father of 10 children who lives with his family on a Massachusetts farm, a man who also devoted a healthy amount of stage time mulling over parenthood a la his contemporary Bill Cosby.
It is no small irony that Gregory, once considered scandalous, is now doing what cultural critics laud as "conscious comedy"--a brand of humor that, simply because of the absence of profanity and lewdness, is considered revolutionary in an age of mourning over the perceived loss of family values.
While Gregory is heartened by the accessibility of information these days ("There's no such thing as an uninformed person anymore because of the electronic media"), he also believes comedy has lost much of its power as a tool of communication.
"I think comedy is on its way out, mainly because of the profanity," he muses. "A lot of comedians may be funny, but they ain't entertaining. Daryl and Dwayne Mooney [who opened for Gregory last weekend] are two of the funniest comedians going, but you wouldn't know that looking at [HBO's] 'Def Comedy Jam.' When do you get entertained? What do you take away from it? This country has only produced three comic geniuses--Mark Twain, Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor. They used their bodies; their bodies became part of the comic genius."
Has Gregory ever considered himself part of that illustrious group? "Oh, no," he says immediately, laughing. "I just walk out on stage and I'm funny, but I don't have no genius. Once in a while, though, something comes over me and I catch myself thinking, 'Damn! I wish I could be out in the audience watching this.' "
"Dick Gregory's One-Man Comedy Show," Vision Complex Theatre, 3341 W. 43rd Place, (213) 295-9685. Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday 3 p.m. $20-$25. Ends Oct. 14.