“Some white Americans are too scared to be openly bigoted, so they call it conservatism.”
That statement could well have been spoken by a Black Lives Matter activist in 2016, but it came out of the mouth of Dick Gregory in the late 1960s. It’s just one of the many powerful lines the audience hears in the off-Broadway play Turn Me Loose, which explores the life of the black comic genius who broke color barriers in the 1960s while challenging white America to confront the deeply racist nature of its society.
Gregory is played by Emmy Award-winning actor Joe Morton, who stars in the ABC hit Scandal. Onstage at New York City’s Westside Theater, he transforms from the Eli Pope many of his fans love to hate into the acerbic truth teller who shocked American comedy audiences while playing a central role in the civil rights struggle.
Even with the success of a highly rated TV show, Morton, who spent many years working as a stage actor, was inspired to return to the theater for a chance to bring Gregory’s story to a new generation that may not have heard of him.
“He was out there on the front lines along with Martin Luther King,” Morton told The Root in a recent interview at the theater. Just as the civil rights movement reached its peak, Dick Gregory was performing across the country raising money and bringing attention to the struggle, often at the cost of his commercial career. Gregory was a close friend of activist Medgar Evers, and the play’s title is taken from the last three words Evers spoke after he was gunned down in front of his own home in Mississippi.
“Once he made the decision that show business was second, it was second,” Morton said of Gregory, who tells us in the play that he went from making $17 a week to $17 million a year. “To push all that aside for the sake of this movement I think is just extraordinary,” he added.
But it wasn’t just his activism that changed America; his very presence on the stage was transformative.
“Before [Hugh] Hefner brought me into the Playboy Club, black comics could not work white nightclubs,” Gregory said in a phone interview with The Root, describing a scene artfully brought to life in the play. “Oh, you could sing, you could dance, you could sweat, but you couldn’t stand flat-footed and talk to white folks.”
In the theater, we see a young Dick Gregory, flush with early success, invited to play the Playboy Club in Chicago, then one of the hottest spots for comedy in the country. He’s late, and after driving through a snowstorm, he’s informed by the club’s manager that he might not want to perform after all. His reason: The club is full of conventioneers from the South. Though he admits to us that he fears he might not get off the stage alive, he still goes on, battling a persistent heckler and landing his own blows with jokes like “I know all about the South; I spent 28 years there one night!”
Soon thereafter, he’s invited to be on Tonight With Jack Paar, an early iteration of The Tonight Show and the pinnacle for any comic black or white. But after the initial rush and excitement, he turns down the offer and hangs up the phone. Moments later, the host himself calls back looking for a reason. Gregory tells him that black performers don’t get to sit on the couch afterward and talk with the host, so he can’t go on the show until that changes.
Gregory is so popular and persuasive, Jack Paar has no choice but to relent, paving the way for the true integration of late night.
The play weaves back and forth from as recent as this year to the late 1950s, and it is a testament to the skills of Morton that he brings the audience on this journey without costume changes or special makeup. A simple change in posture, a minor adjustment to his gait, and the raspy quality of his voice is enough to transport us decades.
What is most fascinating in Turn Me Loose is how much more radical Gregory becomes as he ages. The myth of the young firebrand and the old conservative is not just turned on its head but upended completely. Toward the end of the performance, Gregory asks, “Have I always been this way?” and the answer is a resounding yes. While his radicalness is present throughout the play, Morton slowly builds his performance in intensity from a chummy comedian who you sense still wants to be your friend, even as he makes you squirm, to the aging lion who not only roars but cares not a whit for who is deafened by him.
It’s this power that made Morton the obvious, and perhaps only, choice that John Legend and the other producers could have made when casting this taut production. The Westside Theater is a small, intimate venue, and if you ever wanted to be face-to-face with Papa Pope, as his fans call him on Twitter, then be sure to get an aisle seat in the first five rows. Morton not only stalks the stage but comes down off his pedestal and roams around the house, often sitting just at the stage’s edge and other times walking down the aisles, making eye contact and speaking Gregory’s truth directly to the audience members. More than once, spectators were forced to look away as those penetrating brown eyes bored into them.
At the very end of the performance, the audience is asked to answer a simple question: “How much service did you give to your fellow human beings?” It’s a question that should guide our actions on a daily basis, but one with which we rarely confront ourselves. When asked why he was attracted to playing this role, Morton responded, “It’s a call to action, and the call to action is ‘Find out who you are.’”
Some have criticized contemporary entertainers for not being on the front lines of Black Lives Matter, the way Harry Belafonte and his generation were during the civil rights movement, but Gregory takes exception to this idea.
“I don’t have any problem with entertainers being entertainers, none whatsoever,” he said, adding, “It’s not the entertainers that have brought freedom … look back at all the freedom fighters; they weren’t entertainers at all. If you had a record where entertainers had won wars, that would be different.” But for the comic legend, there was no doubt that the civil rights movement was a war, one that could claim his life at any time.
“I became a soldier for the civil rights movement. … I knew when I said goodbye to my wife and family I might not come back home,” he said. But he was willing to die for the cause, he said, content with the idea that he would “rather be killed by somebody than kill somebody.”
Fearless truth teller. Comic genius. Civil rights soldier. Over 90 minutes, we learn a great deal about who Dick Gregory is, and much more about who we can be when we stand up for ourselves and one another.
Turn Me Loose is playing at the Westside Theater in New York City through July 3. For tickets and information, visit the play’s website or call 212-239-6200.