Months after the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson, the former wife of O.J. Simpson, I got a call from activist and social critic Dick Gregory at about 7 a.m. Gregory, who I had gotten to know when I worked in public radio, was calling to share some information about the case that had never been made public. What was said was so over the top that I remember thinking, “Dick, it’s too early in the morning for conspiracy theories!”
Yet, I remained opened to all possibilities, because after speaking over the years with the pioneering former comedian, one thing was absolutely clear: Dick Gregory was no body’s fool, and a man that one should take seriously. As one who had been on the lines marching with civil rights leader Medgar Evers, facing racist cops and the Ku Klux Klan, Dick Gregory knew something about cover ups and injustice.
Gregory died last year at age 84, and “Turn Me Loose,” the 90-minute play about his extraordinary life, is being performed at D.C.’s Arena Stage through October 14. Written by Gretchen Law and directed by John Gould Rubin, you will want to run to get tickets to this compelling and excellent production which has its share of laughs, but which pierces with its thought provoking look at racism and bigotry.
Obie Award winner Edwin Lee Gibson is spot on in his portrayal of the no-holds barred Gregory, brilliantly nailing his speech and mannerisms, as he transitions back and forth from Gregory’s early years to his later years as a wise griot and elder.
Along the way, the audience is treated to the various highs and lows which would forge Gregory’s witty and provocative political analysis. They would earn the St. Louis native numerous comedic awards, including a nod from Rolling Stone Magazine as one of the top 50 best comedians. They also earned him a place in civil rights history, with Gregory’s latter years spent marching, protesting, fasting, lecturing and speaking out on social injustice.
During the performance, the action shifts from nightclubs and dressing rooms, then to radio and TV studios, where Gregory satirically jokes about subjects ranging from politicians and segregated buses to his childhood growing up in poverty. His cadence slows when he talks about his mother who died at age 48, and “who carried her cross with dignity.” His tone is dark when he speaks about his father, a chef, who never contributed towards his children’s care.
On politicians, he jokes that black people from the South side of Chicago were responsible for putting President Bill Clinton in office. “We voted six or seven times. We made up for the times that we could not,” Gregory says slyly. He then chides blacks for joyously embracing Clinton as their first black president, while complaining later that Barack Obama “wasn’t black enough.”
He becomes serious when relating a vicious act of racism that would impact his own life. At age 9, while shining a woman’s shoes in an all-white bar to earn money, he would have his front teeth kicked out by a white man who would tell him “get your hands off that white woman’s leg.”
When he wants to join his high school’s track team, he is denied because “no n____s can join the team.” When the coach relents and Gregory excels in the sport, he later cannot eat with his team in a restaurant after a track meet or sit with them at a local movie.
Gibson shares these stories, with a steely and in your face directness, as white actor John Carlin, the other figure on stage, weaves in and out, playing various characters, including a merciless heckler, a cabbie and an interviewer. When Carlin, as the heckler, uses the n-word to no-avail and with dripping hate and racism, Gibson takes it in slowly, responding with a measured wisecrack that undercuts the hate with a searing, undeniable truism.
Still, there are many funny moments in this production, particularly when Gibson relates how Gregory gets the upper hand on his oppressor. For instance, when Gregory sits down in a Mississippi restaurant and orders a cheese burger, he is told that “we don’t serve n______s here.” “And I don’t eat them,” replies Gregory who then orders fried chicken. When he is told by three members of the KKK that whatever he does to the chicken will be done to him, Gregory’s response will leave you in stitches.
One of the biggest opportunities in Gregory’s life was being hired by Hugh Hefner to perform at Chicago’s Playboy Club in 1961. On his first night, he would encounter a group of southern racists, with one heckler hurling streams of obscenities at the comedian. His handling of the incident would gain him a six week gig that would garner a write up in Time Magazine as a trailblazing black comedian “who is sophisticated” and unwilling to act buffoonish. It also would get him a history-making gig on Jack Paar’s “The Tonight Show,” which Gregory initially turned down because black performers were not given an opportunity to sit and chat afterwards on the couch.
Gibson’s retelling of these incidents, while gleefully taking in the sweetness of it all, is one of the biggest strengths of this ably directed show. The poignancy is particularly moving after we’ve seen the comedian talk to himself in his dressing room to boost his confidence or when he rails angrily against his dead father, asking “Do you see me now?” One realizes that the cockiness is born partly out of insecurity and a need to be accepted.
Dick Gregory was unapologetic with his wit, and he was unafraid to cause people discomfort. In the show, he calls a southern moderate one who “would hang you low from a tree.” When he moves his family into an all-white Chicago neighborhood, he is mistaken for the help while outside shoveling snow. When his white neighbor asks what he gets for doing the job, he says he gets to sleep with the woman in the house.
Gregory pointed out how the use of words could leave a lasting mark, implying that the word black is considered bad and white is considered good. An example: Angel’s food cake is white and devil’s food cake is chocolate. He notes that in Boston, when white American colonists rebelled against Britain for imposing taxation without representation, their theft and dumping of chests of British tea into the harbor was nicely labeled The Boston Tea Party.”
A defining moment in the show is Gregory’s recollection of the last time that he saw Medgar Evers alive. The two had been preparing for a rally when Gregory got a call saying that his infant son had died. Gregory, who said he been having a bad feeling about a death, reasons that his son died so that he could be called home and his life spared, allowing him to continue in the movement. Evers would be shot to death later in his driveway, and Gregory notes that he, too, would have been killed.
In his later years, Gregory would become a health advocate and entrepreneur, embracing a vegetarian lifestyle and he encourages blacks and others to change their eating habits. As he nears death, Gibson gets Gregory’s’ slowed gait and deepened voice down pat. A rebel to the end, Gregory questions why America is the richest nation on the planet, yet 40 million people are still in poverty. When he says that he once thought poverty was the worst thing on earth, but it is actually racism, we get it that there is something wrong with this picture.
At the end of the show, Gregory notes that “all the ledgers will be balanced,” while stating that there should be one final question that you should ask yourself. That is “how much service did you give to your fellow human being?’
Gregory served with an intelligent insight, his poetic genius leaving a legacy that stands as a benchmark for all who seek to right injustice on the planet.