People toss terms around in reviews and at cocktail parties like “tour de force.” It means a magnetizing performance or show, and we are all hungry for it. If you are looking for a show, a performance, an experience that is up front, brilliant and stunningly smart, run to see acting icon Joe Morton in Gretchen Law’s play “Turn Me Loose.”
“Turn Me Loose” is the story of comic genius Dick Gregory, the first black stand-up in the ’60s to make white audiences laugh at the absurdity of bigotry. Gregory morphed one of the most successful show business careers of the postwar era into a life of activism, sacrifice and danger alongside Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers and other Civil Rights leaders. Wielding razor-sharp wit, Gregory hacked away at myths about race, poverty, war, and politics.
Joe Morton has gained incredible popularity from his recent work in the television hit “Scandal” however his work and fans span decades from “Brother From Another Planet” until this game changer at the jewel box Westside Theatre. Morton doesn’t play comedic genius and activist Dick Gregory he becomes him. From Gregory’s launch in the ’60s until his work continuing right up until today Morton sweats, and hums, groans, weeps and sings us through not only Richard Claxton Gregory’s life, but also the march of the Civil Rights movement through the election of Barack Obama.
Gregory was brilliant. He had an edgy educated, humor that allowed him to stand up to racists from Alabama during his first gig at the Playboy Club in the early ’60s. Gregory’s introduction, given by the very good actor John Carlin who plays many interstitial roles during the play, says, “You may not like him, but you won’t forget him, Dick Gregory.”
In author Gretchen Law’s play, when Gregory encountered heckling from the audience calling him “Nigger,” Gregory’s response was to tell his audience that in his contract it calls for him to receive an extra $50 every time that epithet is hurled.
The play is set up as a nightclub that spans over 50 decades, it is a solid set by Tony winner Leon Rothenberg and its intimacy encourages the audience to respond from time to time. John Gould Rubin’s direction empowers Morton to own every inch of the stage.
He is engaged in a clubby monologue on a stool, he leaves the stage to sit on the apron, wiping his brow telling the tale of the death of Medgar Evers and his own tiny son. A chilling saga where Gregory unfolds a foreboding of death only to receive a call from his beloved wife Lil, with whom he had 10 children, saying their son Richard has died.
Medgar Evers insisted that Gregory go home to his family and Gregory believes it was his son’s death that saved him from being assassinated, as he was constantly standing by Evers’ side.
It was the great Medgar Evers’ last words that inspired the title of this powerful play. As the time shifts from the 60s to today we learn through comedy and exposition facts like “there are more black men imprisoned today than there were enslaved in 1850.” We are forced to come to recon with the tragic path our country has taken and yet to revel in the way that someone like Dick Gregory can pluck humor from the most terrible situation and let it resonate.
Joe Morton is never off stage and never out of character fro 90 minutes, He is drenched and stooped as an old man and upright and dancing as the spry young Gregory. At the close of this show that takes you see sawing from tears to guffaws the entire audience is on its feet before lights have fully dimmer, and many are screaming for MORE, MORE, MORE!
“Turn Me Loose” runs through July 17 at the Westside Theatre, 407 W. 43rd St. For tickets or information, call 212-239-6200 or visit www.turnmelooseplay.com