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“Now, I know that many of you folks out there do read the paper. But I wish you would read all the papers. You just read some of the papers — where they callin’ me the Negro Lenny Bruce. You gotta’ read those Congo papers where they callin’ Lenny Bruce — the white Dick Gregory!” Dick Gregory (Joe Morton) declares near the beginning of Turn Me Loose, Gretchen Law’s smart, essential play about the life and career of the comedian, activist, and self-described wellness guru born Richard Claxton Gregory in St. Louis in 1932. The Emmy-winning, Tony-nominated Morton is riveting as Gregory, going back and forth between club gigs and interviews from the 1960s to the present day, when he addresses the audience directly as an old man, looking back at his failures and accomplishments. (Fortunately, the play avoids his numerous forays into conspiracy theories.) Gregory talks about his life with his wife and children, his goals for financial success and social change, and his friendships with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Medgar Evers. In fact, the title is taken from Evers’s final words: “Turn me loose.” As Morton ambles across Chris Barreca’s stripped-down set, consisting of a microphone, table, stool and phone, the play gets to the heart of what Gregory was and is about. “I’m out to find the truth. Expose the tricks,” he says. Discussing the ongoing battles between black and white, Muslims and Christians, Jews and Palestinians, and liberals and conservatives, he admonishes, “When you accept injustice, you become injustice. When you coexist with filth? You become filth. It’s all of those myths you’re buyin’ into.” Other gems include “Bein’ white ain’t got nothin’ to do with color,” “My tongue . . . was my switchblade. My humor was my sword,” “I believe that information is salvation,” and “When I grew up in St. Louis, I thought that poverty was the worst disease on the earth. I soon learned that racism is the worst disease on the face of the earth.”
Law (The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of Her God, Al Sharpton for President) and director John Gould Rubin (Hedda Gabler, Playing with Fire) zero in on the key moments of Gregory’s career: being invited by Hugh Hefner to perform at the Playboy Club in Chicago in 1961, where he faced a harsh crowd of white southerners, and demanding that if Jack Paar wanted him to do stand-up on the Tonight show, he had to be allowed to sit on the couch and speak with Paar afterward, something no black entertainer had done before. He also makes brilliant use of the word “n-gger.” He celebrates the way Mark Twain employed it (“Mark Twain was so brilliant! He gave a n-gger a name! ‘N-gger Jim.’ And then white folks had to read about a black man with a name. A person.”) and confronts the audience with it. After being heckled at the Playboy Club, he turns to the Westside Theatre audience and says, “How about you all out there? Anyone out there care to stand up and call me a n-gger? Come on now. Don’t miss out on a great opportunity. Stand up! Come on. Stand up! Go ahead. Get on up. Get on up and call me — a n-gger! It’s only a word.” Of course, at that moment you could hear a pin drop, aside from some nervous laughter. (The night I went, the crowd was about half white and half black.) Morton, who has starred in such films as The Brother from Another Planet and Lone Star, such television series as Scandal and Eureka, and the Broadway plays Hair, Art, and Raisin, does not go into full impersonation mode but effectively captures Gregory’s unique spirit in his every movement. However, Turn Me Loose is not quite a one-man show; John Carlin, who is white, also appears in bit parts as various hecklers and a comic. In addition, coproducer John Legend contributes an original song. At one point, Gregory declares, “Nobody makes it out alive when they make a real change that has to do with race. Nobody!” As he often has done over the course of his life, Gregory defies convention yet again.