“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!”
Source: The Root | DAMASO REYES