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Theatre in Review: Turn Me Loose (Westside Theatre)

Joe Morton. Photo: Monique Carboni

Turn Me Loose could be titled The Education of Dick Gregory, as it tracks the political evolution of the comedian and his humor, from his first slickly delivered wisecracks to the latter-day jeremiads that call down the fury of the heavens on the corruption of the world. We first see Gregory in the early '60s, practicing an act that, for the era, is pretty edgy; at a time when Bill Cosby was still spinning tales of Fat Albert and Richard Pryor's act was anodyne enough to get him on The Ed Sullivan Show, Gregory had perfected a style in which the staccato beat of jazz could be heard under the gag lines. He jokingly refers to himself as "the black Lenny Bruce."

In retrospect, there's a bit of restraint in his admittedly hilarious handling of such topics as the Kennedy clan and the Ku Klux Klan. Of the former, he says, "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 apiece. We didn't mean to cheat or anything. We was just making up for all those times we couldn't vote!" Of the latter, he comments, "They say it's colder in the Deep South than it's been for a hundred years. When I was a kid, it got so cold one night that the KKK lit a cross on fire right out on our front porch. We was so cold, we opened the front door and yelled, 'Bring it on in!'"

At first, the actor Joe Morton, who is in his late sixties, seems like an odd choice to portray the twentysomething Gregory, but suddenly, the action jumps ahead to the present day and we see how time has toughened Gregory's comedy as, in the 21st century, he delivers scabrously funny routines about the slave trade, Black Power, and the death penalty. Skipping back and forth in time, Gretchen Law's script shows how the comedian's growing engagement with the civil rights movement transforms him into the sharpest of gadflies, developing an ever-more-ferocious critique of social inequality. As he notes, he has had to find his own way: "Miles Davis told me once I was one funny motherfucker and that I would make it big one day. But he never laid out that road."

One key waystation is Gregory's debut at the Playboy Club, in front of an audience that consists of Southern attendees at a frozen food convention. Their reaction is anything but frozen, as hecklers hurl racial epithets at him. The comedian pushes back, struggling to regain control of his act: Asking how many members of the Klan are in the audience, he says, "I take my sheet off to you." He takes risks with jokes about integration and intermarriage, and, in the nerviest of all strategies, finally commands the audience to rise to its feet and call him the N word. At the performance I attended, the audience at the Westside Theatre complied, with one voice hurling the most noxious of insults at the stage. "It's only a word," he deadpans, staring down the ugliness with uncommon grace.

Next, we see Gregory challenging the show business power structure, turning down a gig on The Tonight Show -- that holy of holies for comedians -- until guaranteed that, after his routine, he can sit on the couch with the other guests, a privilege regularly denied to black performers. In a production loaded with revelatory moments, none is more effective than the bout of near-hyperventilation that strikes Gregory after slamming down the phone on the offer. When none other than Jack Paar calls him back to seal the deal, the outburst that follows -- triumph mixed with previously held-in-check anxiety -- is electric in its intensity. Next, he talks racial politics with a white radio interviewer unnerved by the clarity of his subject's vision. The interviewer is played by John Carlin, who covers all of the other roles; here he assumes a worried frown that seems to stretch down to his waist. There's an unspoken "tut-tut" in each of his questions, which climax with, "It seems to me that you see the American situation only through the perspective of race. Mr. Gregory, do you think we're all bigots?" This question cues Gregory's X-Acto -- sharp analysis of Richard Nixon's Southern strategy, which scooped up hundreds of thousands of votes from white Southerners alarmed and infuriated by Lyndon Johnson's championing of the Civil Rights Act.

A man of his time, Gregory commits himself to the battle for civil rights, an effort that is, from the first, shadowed by premonitions of death. Martin Luther King says to him, "I'm going to be killed, aren't I?" Even more profound is his friendship with the activist Medgar Evers, with whom he mans the barricades in Mississippi. When Gregory returns home following the death of his son, Evers is killed. The comedian comes to the awful conclusion that, had he remained in Mississippi, he would have been murdered, too, and that his own boy was "a sacrificial lamb" who died to spare his father's life. These events have a hardening effect, and, increasingly, he has no time for comedy. Recounting a voter-registration effort in Jackson, he recalls meeting a poor, elderly black man -- the kind nobody notices -- who was jailed for attending a rally, and whose wife died while he was incarcerated. Leaning into the mic, he says, in a murmur that chills one to the marrow, "Is there a joke in there that I missed?"

Morton has long been a fine utility man in all media, delivering one finely understated performance after another on stage, in film, and on television; here he delivers the tour-de-force that Law's script calls for, capturing Gregory at many stages of his life -- slyly ingratiating, edgily hilarious, armed with a fury that takes the paint off the walls, and, finally, contemplative, looking back at "a soldier's life...still scouring the bushes, convinced that there has got to be one or two more of the enemy left to chase." It may very well be the capstone of his career to date.

Under the direction of John Gould Rubin, the action is fast and funny when it needs to be and commanding -- and disturbing -- when the words call for it. Chris Barreca's spare set design gives plenty of room for Stephen Strawbridge's lighting design to breathe -- flooding the stage with hot pinks and reds and saturated blues for the nightclub scenes, and draining the color when tragedy strikes or when Gregory wants to indulge in some straight talk. Barreca also provides a series of projections that serve as a guide to each scene's time and place. Susan Hilferty's costumes and Leon Rothenberg's sound design are both typically professional.

By the end of Turn Me Loose, Gregory's vision has undergone a change, shifting from a purely racial focus to an emphasis on across-the-board economic inequality and political oppression. "I have a case to make that there's only a handful of white people on the planet," he says. "Like Putin. Karl Rove. Dick Cheney. The Koch Brothers. And all the rest of you are imposters. Because bein' white ain't got nothin' to do with color." At least as presented here, Gregory may be in his mid-80s but his ideas are as fresh as today's newsfeed. -- David Barbour

(20 May 2016)

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