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Review: Joe Morton as Dick Gregory electrifies stage in ‘Turn Me Loose’

With ease and bravado, Joe Morton peels back the layers of Dick Gregory’s interesting life.

Compton Herald | Turn Me Loose
Joe Morton in, Turn Me Loose. Photo courtesy Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

Joe Morton is brilliant in ‘Turn Me Loose;’ full-length stage play is based on the life and works of Dick Gregory

When Joe Morton makes his entrance through the audience seated in a nightclub type atmosphere, he stops at an unsuspecting patron and says, “I can see that quite a few northern liberals are here tonight. Come out to see a real nigger do his thing. Well, I’m glad you’re here. Glad to see all you white folks. Comin’ out to see Dick Gregory. Ain’t that nice?!”

With such a powerful opening, one would be wise to strap in tight because you know it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

That’s how Morton kicks off the show, Turn Me Loose, written by Gretchen Law, directed by John Gould Rubin and featuring John Carlin. Reprising his critically-acclaimed off-Broadway performance, Morton is brilliant in this full-length play for the stage from the life and works of Dick Gregory. It’s now playing through Nov. 19 at the Wallis Annenberg Performing Arts Center.

A few minutes into his tour-de-force performance and Morton’s forehead is glistening from moisture. He’s already sweating, profusely, through his shirt. One could say it’s from the lights on the stage, but in reality, it’s probably due to the intensity of Morton’s performance.

This is clearly one of Morton’s best roles to date. Yes, he’s making waves with his “I am the hell and the high water” Papa Pope portrayal on ABC’s Scandal, but his role as Gregory fits like a glove.

With ease and bravado, Morton peels back the layers of Gregory’s interesting life. Like the Phoenix, Gregory rose from poverty to become one of the most respected comedians and civil rights activists in modern times. The play alternates between the 1960s and the present day. With ease, it switches venues from clubs and cafes in the 60s to present day clubs and the theater in which it is being performed.

While Gregory, who died Aug. 19, 2017, at the age of 84, was best known as a stand-up comedian who delivered social satire like no other, he was also very much an activist. He used his fame to bring attention to civil rights movement and the various racial injustices perpetrated upon the Coloreds, Negroes, African Americans, and Blacks.

“Negroes up north won that election for Kennedy right out there on the south side of Chicago. We was out there votin’ six or seven times a piece. Don’t get me wrong, we weren’t trying to cheat or anything. We was just tryin’ to make up for all those times we couldn’t vote!”

Yes, during his career Gregory played for laughs, but there was always this underlying, slow-simmering desire to poke the bear. He would deliver his messages – wrapped in laughter – but always with the intent to start a conversation. It wasn’t always easy. Gregory, whose autobiography, Nigger, became a #1 best-selling book, played to audiences that were laced with rednecks who didn’t appreciate his voice. His show was sometimes met with disdain from bigots and hecklers who wanted him to “go back to Africa” or simply disappear.

During his career, Gregory was met with personal tragedy, but also with a few triumphs. Gregory’s son died while he was on the road with his friend and fellow civil rights activist Medgar Evers. Gregory, who had 10 children with his wife, Lil, felt his son was a sacrifice in order that he, himself would live to continue the civil rights fight. A few weeks later Evers was shot dead in front of his home. According to Gregory, he and Evers were prepared to die for what they believed in.

He was so successful when the Playboy Club booked him to replace a White comedian that the Club offered him a three-year contract. When Gregory received a call to appear on the The Tonight Show, hosted by Jack Paar, he turned it down because Black performers were not allowed to sit on the couch and talk like the White guests.

Gregory, who was in demand at the time, held out until The Tonight Show agreed to let him sit on the couch. It was a personal triumph for Gregory, but he viewed it as a triumph for the race.

He hangs up the phone, almost breaks down, but recuperates … (pause).

All right, Richard Claxton Gregory. Dick. Pointing at himself in the mirror

I can sit on that couch … (pause)

You hear that Big Prez? … (pause)

I can sit on the couch … (pause)

I can sit on that mother-fuc—- couch.

The staging is perfect. There is a lone microphone for when he is in the nightclub, a table and a bottle of alcohol when he’s supposed to be in his dressing room and a table with two chairs and two microphones when he’s on a talk show.

Nothing else is needed.

On the DONLOE SCALE: D (don’t bother), O (oh, no), N (needs work), L (likable), O (oh, yeah) and E (excellent), Turn Me Loose gets an E (excellent).

Turn Me Loose, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Lovelace Studio Theater, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills [MAP]; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 19; Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes (no intermission). For more info, thewallis.org/TML

READ ALSO: ‘Turn Me Loose’ website

<p>Darlene is a veteran publicist and an entertainment and travel journalist whose work has appeared in numerous print and digital entertainment publications. She is also a lecturer on the journalism faculty of California State University, Northridge.</p>

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