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Arena Stage Turns Him Loose with Turn Me Loose

Arena Stage Turns Him Loose with Turn Me Loose

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.

Edwin Lee Gibson. Photo by Margot Schulman.

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.

Edwin Lee Gibson (Dick Gregory) in Turn Me Loose, running September 6 -October 14, 2018 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

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Out of Town

My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to

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