Arena Stage steps up front and center into the spotlight of an iconic stand up comic with the thrilling and fiery Turn Me Loose, a scorchingly funny new play by Gretchen Law (The Adventures of A Black Girl In search Of Her God) chronicling the life and times of the comic genius, Richard Gregory (October 12, 1932 – August 19, 2017) He’s widely known as a celebrated African-American comedian who transcended the form to become something far more demanding of our attention than his sharply focused humor or success. Over his decades-long stellar career, Gregory was known widely for his “no-holds-barred” comedy, attacking and confronting most hilariously bigotry and racism head on. This master of the stage spared no one in his finely tuned diatribe, including politicians, celebrities, and those who are clearly white supremacists masking as conservatives. As directed cleanly and directly by John Gould Rubin (Old Globe’s Double Indemnity), the gentleman’s comedy routine is brought to the forefront shining brightly and hotly for all to see and feel, but it’s in the undercurrent and lazer eyed directness that makes this biographical piece feel so raw, dynamic, and brilliantly clever in its sharpness.
This electrifying drama begins with wife and drunk-man jokes told classical by your standard 1960’s white man standup comedian, played beautifully by the elastic John Carlin (Pearl’s Uncle Vanya), who, over the course of the 100 minute show plays a wide spectrum of extras, from hecklers to interviewers. He’s really there at this moment to warm us up to the powerful locomotive that’s pulling in, introducing the man we have all really come to see and hear about, Dick Gregory, perfectly portrayed by Edwin Lee Gibson (NYTW’s The Seven).
Filling the space with a strongly composed effervescent, Gibson’s Gregory enters and takes center stage with force and unrelenting passion. Living fully in the spotlight of standup scenarios, Gregory inhabits the stage That is beautifully designated with an exacting eye for precision and esthetics by set designer Christopher Barreca (TFANA’s He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box), straight forward and authentic costumes by Susan Hilferty (NYTW’s An Ordinary Muslim), spot-on lighting by Stephen Strawbridge (Old Globe’s Much Ado About Nothing), and strong sound design by Leon Rothenberg (Broadway’s The Boys in the Band). Gregory transforms himself, galloping this way and back through time and a wide age range with precision as he runs himself ragged for the movement, the outrage, and for this intelligently crafted play. Turn Me Loose, does just that, flinging the man foreword wildly and succinctly around the map from the 1960’s to 2012, and 2017, and back. It’s a testament, this chronicle, to Gregory’s staying power and his sharply structured daggers of hilarity pinpointing all that deserve it, including a hostile audience of Southern White men having drinks at the Playboy Club, Chicago in the 1960’s. It’s a tense altercation and one that frayed my nerves as strongly as Gregory dives in, turning his strengths out and at the audience rather than running away.
Tense and balancing on the edge of disaster, Gregory jokes his way through. A trait he learned most dramatically as he rose out of the segregated clubs of 1961 utilizing biting humor and engaging charm to become the first black comedian to successfully cross over to white audiences in clubs and on television. Magnificently forcing his way into the couch like no one else had ever done before, Little Dick Gregory found a way through racial comedy to become the first black comedian to successfully cross over to white audiences finding a place far beyond the standup spotlight. Gibson speaks the truth, most magnetically, and dresses it up in jokes so the revolution can be heard and digested. It’s a strongly worded testament to this man’s legend and vision, one that I’m grateful to have had the chance to experience. In this smartly structured time jumping piece, Gregory turns his jokes into strong statements of protest, creating an art form that is political activism, taking stands against the Vietnam War and racial injustice. For a play about a comic from the 60’s, Turn Me Loose has more to say to our current political dilemma than most of popular culture today. Seeing this on the night of that shameful vote on Kavanaugh, his attacks on the #OrangeMonster and comments on President Obama resonate on a whole deeper level than I ever anticipated when walking into Arena Stage that night in Washington DC. It shows the playwright and the comedian’s unapologetic wit and style, and the genius behind his comic civil rights stance. He takes no prisoners, this fiery comedian, daring the world to take offense and happy to impatiently wait down in the jailhouse for freedom. We stand and cheer his bravery and the creative team that brought this compelling drama and man into the spotlight.