For a moment watching Arena Stage’s sharp and provocative production of Turn Me Loose, I forgot that Dick Gregory died in 2017 and felt that I was in the presence of history. Edwin Lee Gibson perfectly channels the acerbic comic, both as a fiery young stand-up speaking truth to power during the civil rights movement, and fifty years later as a world-weary veteran gadfly. Turn Me Loose at the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater is not just a biographical drama, but the history lesson you never knew you never knew.
DC native Dick Gregory was the first black comic to wield social criticism as his verbal razor, laying bare our societal hypocrisy along with laying the groundwork for future comics such as Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, and Trevor Noah. Humorist turned civil rights activist, alongside close friends Edgar Mevars and Martin Luther King Jr., Gregory’s routines are at once unapologetic and humbled by the enormity of the racial chasm.John Gould Rubin’s direction, coupled with Christopher Barreca’s set and Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting create a snug atmosphere to follow Gregory from comedy club stand-up to his inner thoughts. The intimacy makes act-of-all trades John Carlin’s racist heckling even more jagged, prompting some of Gregory’s best deliberate stiletto slices of frank truth.
Playwright Gretchen Law shapes Gregory’s story through a constellation of moments across time, from his stand-up break-through to a non-receptive crowd of good ole boys at the Playboy Club in the early 1960s, through post-Obama DC in 2017, the year he died at age 84. The script weaves together a comedy carpet from his classic bit about moving into a white neighborhood to jaded present day jabs such as, “being white is an attitude,” observing there are only four actual white people on the planet: Vladimir Putin, the Koch brothers, and Mitch McConnell.The routines become increasingly personal and political until they are no longer jokes, but moral rage.In the contemporary climate, Gregory’s oldest jokes could just as easily have been written yesterday.
Deemed “scorchingly funny and brilliant” by The New York Times, Turn Me Looseis deft comedy, poignant biography, and biting social commentary all in one. Be sure to catch this welcome homage to Dick Gregory while you can.
Turn Me Loose is playing at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater Kreeger Theater through October 21, 2018 (1101 Sixth St. SW, Washington DC 20024). Running time: ninety minutes minutes, with no intermission. For information or tickets call 202-488-3300 or click here.
Photo Credit: Margot Schulman