Who was Dick Gregory?
That question may not be precisely the point of Gretchen Law’s script, “Turn Me Loose”, which casts a moving spotlight on the long and varied career of the late, great Gregory, but it presents itself nevertheless. Who was he at heart? Can that question even be answered?
Through a smoothly transitioning flow of moments from stand-up routines, to interviews, to backstage soliloquys with himself and his always absent father, a sketched-in view of Gregory the man, the comic, the activist, the eternal protester emerges.
Directed by John Gould Rubin, the heart of Arena’s success with this production is the casting of Edwin Lee Gibson in the role of Dick Gregory. Smooth, quick, wary as a cat in dark territory, Gibson moves fluidly from the unknown, barrier-breaking Gregory of the 1950s to the elderly darling of dissent that he was before his death in 2017.
With only John Carlin nimbly filling the posts of audience heckler, cab driver, and San Francisco radio interviewer, Gibson owns the stage for ninety uninterrupted minutes. The show is constructed around moments intended to define the evolution of Gregory’s progress from comic in black nightclubs to barrier-breaking hero of his race, the Jackie Robinson of stand-up.
Crediting Hugh Hefner with bringing him to the Chicago Playboy Club and his first white audiences (in this case, a hostile group of Southern conventioneers), Gregory quickly honed his gift for back-slam humor and crowd control. Segregation is his constant topic, even while jabbing fun at the fact that “the back of the bus is where the emergency exits are.” One of his best lines begins with the story of seating himself at a diner and being informed by the waitress that “We don’t serve colored people.” To which Gregory responded, “Well, I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a chicken.”
Acknowledging a heckler who yells an n-word that I won’t print here, Gregory encourages the man, saying that he gets an extra fifty dollars every time it happens. In a moment of confrontation, he commands the audience to stand and yell the word at him. We stand, in total silence, of course.
This marks the beginning of the ‘un-funny’ Gregory, whose bitterness began to outrace his gift for humor, and once he had the attention of white America, could use both knowing that he would be heard. The trickle became a stream and then a torrent. At a precipitous moment in his career, he found the courage to tell Jack Paar – THE Jack Paar – that no, he would not appear on The Tonight Show unless he were invited to sit on the couch and talk afterward, something no other black performer had been asked to do. Paar relented.
Christopher Barreca’s minimalistic set along with Stephen Strawbridge’s finely tuned lighting moves the action easily from downstage nightclub microphone, to backstage dressing room with his whiskey bottle, cigarettes, and telephone. Two chairs make a taxi. Two chairs and a small table become an interview room at the Hungry i.
“Turn Me Loose”, the title, was taken from Medgar Evers’ last words when he was gunned down in his driveway in Mississippi in 1963. Dick Gregory was supposed to be with him that night, but was called home to Missouri at the news of his infant son’s death. Gregory would see that close call as a sign that his life had to be spared for the work he meant to do.
The script is a carefully culled love letter to Gregory, focusing on his strength and unique spot in the Civil Rights movement, while barely grazing his extraordinary inclination for radical positions.
Once obese and a heavy smoker and drinker, he embraced a life of extreme veganism along with regular fasting, and reprimanded his fellow blacks for their bad habits. Railing privately at Pres, his absent father, Gregory himself found time to father eleven children but no time to spend rearing them. And a nearly cellular-level suspicion of white establishment was surely at the root of his endless conspiracy theories, from the moon landing to 9-11.
One begins to suspect that a lifetime as an icon in the Civil Rights movement bred in him an incapacity for seeing progress which might suggest a waning of his own importance. The older, halting Gregory barely mentions Obama or any other politically successful blacks, and has no use for conservatives OR liberals no matter how often the progressive audience of well-heeled whites and blacks clap, laugh, and signal their virtue. Whatever else he was, he was a man of courage, surprises, and extremes.
Mr. Gibson communicates the very soul of this man with adroit timing and polished subtlety. We are certain at every moment that, whoever it is, this is the “real” Dick Gregory, the man of whom Richard Pryor once said, “He was the greatest, and he was the first. Somebody had to break down that door. He was the one.”
WANT TO GO?
What: “Turn Me Loose”
Where: Arena Stage
1101 Sixth St. SW
Call: (202) 554-9066 or visit www.arenastage.org
Playing through Oct. 14