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Turn Me Loose ~ A Play About Comic Genius Dick Gregory ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
September 17, 2018

Playwright Gretchen Law’s political, darkly comic drama is a starkly drawn love letter to comedian activist, Dick Gregory.  It reminds us of Gregory’s take-no-prisoners battle against racism and America’s dark past and its current treatment of indigent African-Americans.  I use the term ‘African-American’ though you won’t hear Gregory use it.  It was not yet in fashion in Gregory’s day, folks were still saying ‘Negro’ or the newly coined term, ‘Black’.  In this monologue, Gregory liberally slings what we now refer to as the ‘N’ word.  It’s sickening to hear it used today – though rappers frequently do.  The audience squirms.  It’s exactly what Law wants us to feel.  We know it’s a word for Blacks’ usage only.  Gregory used the word to shock and to defuse its dehumanizing effect.  If you’re White, don’t even think about using it. You are not that cool and probably never will be.

Edwin Lee Gibson (Dick Gregory) in Turn Me Loose. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Director John Gould Rubin puts Gregory (played compellingly by Edwin Lee Gibson) center stage in Christopher Barreca’s simple set design, to focus on Gregory’s impact on and dedication to the Civil Rights movement.  Using humor to promote change, Gregory endeavored to heighten awareness of such issues as income disparity, corporate greed, capitalism, consumerism, drug companies and Wall Street.

Growing up in poverty in St. Louis, he was acutely aware of its demonic grip.  “Poverty is what threatens Democracy,” he foretold. And comedy was his salvation.  As a young man he started out performing standup in small local nightclubs catching the eye of Playboy magazine publisher, Hugh Hefner, who invited him to perform a one-night only gig at the Mansion where Gregory quickly offended a congress of rednecks.  As the first black comedian on the nightclub scene, his popularity led to gigs in Vegas and national TV appearances.  Soon after he became close friends with Civil Rights activist Medgar Evans and began performing for the NAACP.  To say he was a hero to the movement, is an understatement.

Edwin Lee Gibson (Dick Gregory) in Turn Me Loose. Photo by Margot Schulman.

The play toggles between the 60’s when Gregory became radicalized - even running for President during the Nixon-era - and the 2017 post-Obama era when he was able to witness a modicum of change.  John Carlin reprises his roles as Stand-up Comic/Emcee/Interviewer/Heckler and Cabbie in this riveting presentation.

Gregory died last summer after more than half a century of activism and before witnessing the growth of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the nation’s conflicted response to pro football player Colin Kaepernick’s taking a knee to draw attention to young men killed in record numbers by police. In later years, Gregory made DC his home.  You have to wonder what he would say if he were still here.

Edwin Lee Gibson (Dick Gregory) in Turn Me Loose. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Highly recommended.

In association with John Legend, Get Lifted Film Company and the Will and Jada Smith Family Foundation.  Costume Design by Susan Hilferty, Lighting Design by Stephen Strawbridge and Sound Design by Leon Rothenberg.

Through October 21st at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

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