“It was in the New York Times that there are 1.5 million black men missing. They are not in jail. I couldn’t imagine where they went until I saw the movie Get Out.”
That’s Dick Gregory from his September 2017 biography, Defining Moments in Black History: Reading Between the Lies, who, with his acerbic humor, became one of the preeminent comedic voices of the civil rights era.
In Turn Me Loose: A Play About the Comedic Genius of Dick Gregory, Emmy-winning actor Joe Morton embodies Gregory on and off stage in a seamless biographical journey written by Gretchen Law and directed by John Gould Rubin, now running at The Wallis Annenberg Performance Arts Center through November 19. Sitting in the Lovelace Studio Theater’s cabaret-styled club, Turn Me Loose gives audiences a behind-the-curtain glimpse at Gregory’s transformative life and career, revealing an activist, performer, and writer always ahead of his time.
Gregory was famous for using his sharp tongue and sardonic wit to get out of trouble. Morton, who adeptly portrays Gregory, gracefully moving between his role as a young, incisive comic of the 1960s and 70s and the comedic elder comic statesman in the new millennium, described to me how the legendary comic started telling jokes in the first place:
Dick was never a fighter — not with his fists, anyway. As a kid, he was the little skinny guy everyone thought they could beat up. So as they started to call him names, or whatever they did, he would preempt them by turning it on himself. So they would go to him just to get him started and to hear what he had to say.
The death of Dick Gregory in August signaled the death of one of the Civil Rights era’s most outspoken and iconic figures. Regarding the old adage that Bill Clinton was indeed the first black president and that Obama wasn’t black enough, Morton paraphrased Gregory, who was known to say things like “Well, they elected a polite black man … if I were elected president, I’d have ripped up the rose garden and put watermelons in there instead.”
By the time I catch up with playwright Gretchen Law on a Sunday afternoon, she’s already returned to her home in New York following the opening weekend of the play.
MICHAEL LORENZO PORTER: I understand you were personally chosen by Dick to write this play.
GRETCHEN LAW: Yes, he did. I wrote a character for him in a play I had written years ago called Al Sharpton for President. I sent him the script for the hell of it and he really liked it, which was a very nice surprise for me. The play had four characters: Al Sharpton, Cornel West, Dick Gregory, and Josiah Henson, the freed slave who was the basis for Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
The play opens when Sharpton is released from a 90-day stay in a Brooklyn prison after he protested a military bombing exercise. Dick actually visited him in prison and introduced the idea of fasting to Al Sharpton. This was really how Al started to lose all that weight initially. Then he had a press conference, flanked on either side by Cornel West and Dick Gregory, and announced that he would be running for President in 2004 — which he did, in fact, follow through with. Dick Gregory was very amused by the play and taken by it.
Years later our director, John Rubin, was working on a composite piece about 1968 and he wanted to include a segment on Dick so he called Dick Gregory’s office, and they said, “We don’t have a problem with that, but why don’t you use Gretchen Law as your playwright?” John Rubin called me, and I met with him in New York. I wrote a small 30-minute piece which was part of this composite which was read at the Labyrinth Theatre, and a producer talked to me and said that portion on Dick Gregory needs to be a solo piece. So she came up with the development money and we got to work.
Do you feel a particular pressure in writing plays or work that talk about race being that you’re a white woman? Do you think being an outsider, and being given a unique perspective gives you an ability to kind of diagnose some things or as you said earlier, shine a light on them? Is there a line you feel you shouldn’t cross in dealing with sensitive issues?
That’s a fascinating question! The things that divide us are deeper than just a matter of skin color, and I think this is what Dick Gregory was trying to get to. These are a false dichotomy that needs to be unveiled and dissolved. These have nothing to do with us. These are man-made constructs. The things that divide us are not real. They are learned. They are ingrained. He repeatedly made those distinctions. Being a white writer with this material, I was lucky that I was exposed to a lot of people at the age that I was and that I was able to cross out of cultures easily. I feel very blessed by the black community which has given me so much depth and insight over the years. I certainly try to be true to the voice of Dick Gregory. I truly tried to channel him and bring out his honesty.
When you think of Dick Gregory, not just a comic but as an activist, how consistent do you think he was in his message?
I don’t know if consistency is the exact word I would use, but I remember at one point he said, “If it wasn’t for the civil rights movement, I’d have died.”
After his infant son died, he subscribed to a universal religion and that, to an extent, saved him too. He felt his beliefs transcended denomination. “My humor was my sword and my switchblade was my mouth,” is what he would say.
He did not like violence and was a brilliant man. I just love the way he combined humor and truth; what I mean when I say “truth” is that he was completely faithful to his method and his message. He was really well read, really smart about his ideas. The other ingredient that set him apart from most humans in the world was his unbridled courage, but at the same time he was restrained because he knew how to combine that cross-section of humor and courage. He could say things that the rest of us could not get away with saying without getting into a huge fight or getting killed. He was so unrelenting and savvy in his devotion to the cause. Just a really strong and sweet man. He could rant and rave, and then turn a corner and be the sweetest guy. He would do this all the time, using the wholeness of his being.
In reading about your previous works, it seems you are interested in social issues; mainly race, politics and the black experience. Why?
The era I grew up in. I was really influenced by people like Dick Gregory as an adolescent. I was really familiar with his work and career. Growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, I was really drawn to the civil rights movement of that time, and the issue that draws me in is the psychosis of racism. I don’t know if another issue has compelled me as much. There is a lot of tragedy, unfairness, and brutality but racism is one of the issues that manifests all of the dark sides of what it means to be human. It was an issue that touched me personally as a young person in every aspect of my life.
I’m also very drawn to the black culture — black arts, black music, black preachers. To me, it was the culture that best encapsulated the anxiety of our era.
The anxiety of our era?
The ‘60s and ‘70s represented a rapid change in culture and ideologies. Racism to me was the most poignant issue.
If the anxiety of the ‘60s and ‘70s was the shocking violence that racism bred, today’s anxiety must be that a large portion of our society seems resigned to the indifference towards the violence and in some cases, turning a blind-eye to it altogether.
Did you feel that if you could say something artistically about race that you could maybe change someone’s mind, or even their heart?
I don’t know if I set out to change people’s minds, but to shine a light on the issue and present them in other ways than just the more common verbiage: “Let’s address racism!” All my plays do in fact deal with racism in some way. The Dick Gregory play really does it in a straightforward kind of way but most of my other work tries to enlarge the issue — try and make it an unavoidable thing, something the audience has to contend with; something to reckon with.
There is a point in the play where Morton as Gregory says: “I get an extra $50 every time I hear the word nigger.” Then he invites the audience to do just that. On opening night, not one person in the crowd said it. Speaking with Morton a couple of days ago, he said every person in the audience said it. Do you think that device useful in getting audiences to reckon with, as you say, the problem of racism; being actively called upon to say something racist?
It’s a very interesting question and of course it will be an ongoing question for me as the playwright. It affects people in many different ways. It makes some people angry and others are sort of mystified by it. I don’t think there is a definitive response to that question but it’s very intriguing, and theatrically I continue to struggle with that. Dick didn’t actually ask the audience to stand up and call him that, but he did really play with the audience that night. So, we just took it a step further and engaged the audience — breaking the fourth wall — to try and see if we could increase the impact of the work. But it is sort of open and ongoing in terms of how that works for each performance. Joe has a lot of theatrical liberty that he has to work with. Every night is different on the stage. It has played differently with black people versus white people.
In the final lines of the performance Morton as Gregory relays a call to action to the audience. Is the play itself a call to action?
It wasn’t written with that in mind, but the result has been that many people have taken it as such. Something I learned about Dick Gregory in the process of writing this is that I don’t think he was a recruiter for the cause as much as he was a spokesperson for it. If you try to make a composite snapshot of his life, his life really is a call to action; that’s what it symbolizes.
After grappling with the material for so many years and having his voice in my head, trying to take some of his most salient messages and string them together. That is Dick Gregory. That is him saying, “If I had another son, I’d name him nigger.” At the end of his life, he was noted as saying he wishes he’d done more — which is kind of ironic because it’s very hard for me to imagine a human doing more than he did. He was the compulsive guy and he couldn’t not do what he did.
How involved were you in the casting Morton for this play, and did you feel that the differences in their respective upbringings presented certain challenges in creating a very realistic version of Dick Gregory?
I was actually not involved in the casting. Jack Doolan from New York Stage and Film was our casting director. The first time I saw Joe we did some roundtable read-throughs with him and then we had the reading at the Atlantic theatre company. As soon as I met him and heard him read the lines, I wanted him for the part. I was sold. He feels the material. He is an incredibly fine stage actor — the best in my opinion. He was really devoted to the process. He was committed to the developmental process and was a great source support to me personally. I was enamored with his acting. If I gave him any praise, he would retort “You can’t act without the words.”
He doesn’t resemble Dick Gregory, especially in his older years. But that really never mattered. We all knew we weren’t going to dress him up in a long white beard on stage or scrubbing make-up off him in between scenes. We just wanted a man with dignity and talent to get up there and tell the story, and nobody could have done a better job than Joe Morton.