Arena Stage’s new Turn Me Loose defies easy classification, much like Dick Gregory, the comedian it profiles, explores, and gives fulminating voice. The show is part play, part retrospective, and multiple parts simply stand-up, using some of Gregory’s old sets to get new laughs.
Gregory himself, who died in D.C. last year, wore a lot of hats. Apart from his work as a comic, he was a highly active Civil Rights protester, an author, a one-time presidential candidate, and eventually a health-food proponent. But he’s most famous for his black-comedian “firsts.” First to bring racial humor from an African-American perspective into the mainstream, first to sit on the “Tonight” show couch to talk with Jack Paar, etc.
Turn Me Loose, which takes its title from the last words of assassinated Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers, a friend of Gregory’s, doesn’t have — or need — much of a plot. In its intermission-free 90 minutes, it intersperses stand-up, interviews, and simple storytelling, giving the audience a peak inside the man’s head. It’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you think. Apparently, it will make you embrace lame platitudes like “it’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you think.”
As Gregory, Edwin Lee Gibson embraces the mantles thrust upon him. He shows you the pain hiding just outside of the smirking satire in Gregory’s jokes, but also the glints of wit in his most agonizing moments. It’s a thorough, tempered performance, with an able assist from John Carlin, the only other actor on stage, who darts in and out as a heckler, a cab driver, an interviewer.
Targets of Gregory’s, in addition to the obvious racial oppression, include everything from capitalism to refined sugar. It might be surprising to some that so much of what he riffed about in 1962 America is still a problem in 2018. To the rest of us, it’s just sad.
As written by Gretchen Law and directed by John Gould Rubin, Turn Me Loose, which is going on now until October 14, comes off as a real crowd-pleaser, even when its emotions are as raw as Gregory’s later-life diet.
Of course, not every crowd deserves to be pleased. The audience at Thursday’s opening night loved the show, but were themselves quite unlovable. Multiple cellphones/devices went off, some more than once. Drinks were audibly kicked over and bathroom breaks were taken, including during one of Gibson’s most powerful monologues. It’s a tribute to the performers that they were able to ignore all of this, but they really shouldn’t have to.
Rising above a shitty audience, however, was exactly what Gregory was all about. Our hats are off to him.