Turn Me Loose

Theater, Comedy
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Turn Me Loose: Theater review by Raven Snook

Even if you know the routines and rants of pioneering African-American comic/activist/health guru Dick Gregory by heart, Turn Me Loose still has the power to surprise, shock and galvanize. That's in part due to his insightful, erudite and uncomfortably hilarious views on our country's race and class problems which—though forged during the civil rights movement—remain relevant today. But his scathingly accurate analysis wouldn't land with such force without Joe Morton's revelatory performance as he channels Gregory over a half century.

Although best known for his film and TV work (notably his Emmy-winning turn as “Papa” Pope on Scandal), the youthful sexagenarian cut his teeth onstage in the '70s, in Broadway tuners no less. Perhaps Morton’s musicality accounts for his heretofore hidden comic timing—the way he captivates and cracks up the audience as he delivers some of Gregory's best-known bits at the mic, you'd think he's been doing stand-up for decades.

But Gretchen Law's shrewd, one-act bio-play is not just a parade of Gregory's greatest hits. Thanks to John Gould Rubin's lucid direction, the show toggles smoothly between the '60s and the 2010s, with Morton's mutable physicality establishing the period just as well as the years projected on the rear screen. Instead of trying to pack in every little detail, Law distills his 83 years (Gregory's still alive and shticking…and agitating) into 90 potent minutes by dramatizing pivotal moments in his life. These glimpses are public—winning over a rowdy audience of white Southerners at Chicago's Playboy Club in the early '60s or a super-serious 1968 TV interview, the same year he ran for President. Others are private, such as refusing to appear on the Jack Parr Tonight Show unless he was invited to sit on the couch, the death of his young son and the assassination of his close friend and fellow activist Medgar Evers (the title of the show were Evers’s last words). Although Law lifted much of her script from Gregory's well-documented words, his scenes of personal soul-searching are invented and she does an excellent job of aping his signature verbal style.

She also, smartly, does not make it a solo show. The versatile John Carlin plays all the white dudes Gregory encounters, from vanilla comics to unabashed racists to unsettled interviewers, and their interactions prevent monologue monotony from setting in. Yet the most memorable moments are when Morton-as-Gregory addresses the audience, at one point daring us to stand and call him the N-word (also the incendiary title of his autobiography) and constantly urging us to fight inequality, racism, corporate greed, and all the other ills the Black Lives Matter and Occupy movements rail against. They wouldn't exist without Gregory laying the groundwork way back when. This slyly entertaining evening is a call to action, too.—Raven Snook

Westside Theatre (Off Broadway). By Gretchen Law. Directed by John Gould Rubin. With Joe Morton, John Carlin. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.

By: Raven Snook

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