Last time I was down South I walked into this restaurant and this white waitress came up to me and said, “We don’t serve colored people here.” I said, “That’s all right. I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.”
Then these three white boys came up to me and said, “Boy, we’re giving you fair warning. Anything you do to that chicken, we’re gonna do to you.” So I put down my knife and fork, I picked up that chicken and I kissed it. Then I said, “Line up, boys!”
A good friend had the privilege of seeing Dick Gregory perform in the late 1960s when the comedian was touring college campuses. At the time, Gregory was in the midst of one of his hunger strikes protesting racial inequality. Gregory’s in-your-face comedy, which mocked bigotry and racism that found a receptive audience among college students, is timeless, no more so than right now in our politically-charged climate.
In Turn Me Loose, now playing at Arena Stage, Edwin Lee Gibson delivers a tour de force performance. On stage for two hours, Gibson becomes Gregory, recreating some of the comedian’s most famous standup routines while telling us about his family and career. The narrative moves from Gregory’s beginnings in the early 1960s when he was appearing primarily in black-owned clubs, right up to 2017, shortly before he died in August.
In 1961, Hugh Hefner saw Gregory perform before an all-white audience in the black-owned Roberts Show Bar in Chicago. Hefner hired Gregory to work at the Chicago Playboy Club, a visible platform that helped him launch his career. But Gregory continued to fight for equality even when risking an opportunity other comedians would kill for. Gibson recreates a phone call Gregory received from Jack Paar inviting him to perform on the Tonight Show. Gregory refused and when Paar asked him why, he pointed out that other Tonight Show guests – read, white – would move to the host’s couch to carry on a conversation. If he came on the show, Gregory told Paar, he wanted a seat on the couch. Finally, Paar agreed.
Gibson has the comic timing down, knowing how to deliver a punch line. And some of the punch lines are whoppers, specifically in one segment when the audience is asked to stand. Gregory made for a challenging interview, as portrayed in one scene. (John Carlin plays the interviewer, as well as a heckler and a cabbie.) Examining racism can be painful and, indeed, in the past Gregory’s approach often created controversy. Gibson doesn’t shy away from these moments, in fact, seems to relish them. He’s also skillful conveying Gregory’s age, moving energetically around the stage as the younger comedian, and more slowly and tentatively later on. Right up until the end, Gregory was a force. Turn Me Loose gets across that message with Gibson’s riveting performance.
Photo by Margot Shulman
Turn Me Loose
Written by Gretchen Law
Directed by John Gould Rubin
1101 Sixth Street SW