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A CurtainUp Review
Turn Me Loose
By Charles Wright

And how can you all cry about the crucifixion of Christ and not be against capital punishment? . . . Don't you know that your Christ died because the State killed him? He wasn't killed by no drunk chariot driver! And you know that if he came back today with his beard, long hair and long gown, lookin' like Bin Laden, they would throw him right out of the country. If he came back in Texas they would throw him right into the electric chair. And then all the Christians would have to walk around wearin' them little gold electric chairs hung around their necks.
— Joe Morton as Dick Gregory in Turn Me Loose
dick gregory-joe morton
Joe Morton (Photo: Monique Carboni)
Biographical dramas are common on the New York stage, but they're usually about dead people such as Lyndon B. Johnson or Billie Holiday. Comedian Dick Gregory, the protagonist of Turn Me Loose, is going strong at 83.

Playwright Gretchen Law and Joe Morton, who plays Gregory, have undertaken the ambitious task of depicting the comedian/activist at various stages in his controversial career. The result is intellectually engaging; more important for playgoers, it's emotionally compelling from beginning to end.

In the early scenes of Turn Me Loose Morton plays Gregory in his twenties, hot on the trail of traditional nightclub and television stardom. This fine actor (Rowan Pope on the popular ABC television series Scandal) is skilled enough to pull off those scenes convincingly, though a little willful suspension of disbelief by the audience doesn't hurt. Morton proves even more adept, at the end of the drama, playing the new-millennium Gregory, prophetic witness to 50-plus years of social change, "still scouring the bushes, convinced that there has got to be one or two more enemies left to chase."

To be fair, Morton's youthful looks belie his veteran-actor status — 42 years ago he received a Tony nomination for creating the role of Walter Lee Younger in the hit Broadway musical Raisin. But what's noteworthy is the actorly technique with which he shifts from early adulthood to middle and advanced age and back again in full view of his spectators, without benefit of wigs or altered make-up. Morton embodies this monumental role with utmost believability.

The bulk of Turn Me Loose concerns Gregory's conversion to social activism under the influence of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Medgar Evers, and the way his devotion to the civil-rights movement, in mid and later life, transcends all other ties — including those to spouse and children. (Gregory and his wife Lil had 11 children, though one died in infancy). Playwright and performer steer clear of hagiography in portraying the sacrifices Gregory makes for principle and conscience. Turn Me Loose is a vivid portrait of flaws as well as virtues.

Law's script has no fat: what's there is essential to Gregory's story, and Morton makes a feast of every scene. The Gregory of Turn Me Loose is a complicated figure, at once earnest and acerbic, neurotic, ambitious, angry but always life-loving. His biting wit never obscures his humanity. It's a measure of Morton's gifts that, as a dramatic character, Gregory both evolves and is consistent throughout the performance.

Directed by John Gould Rubin, Turn Me Loose is impeccably paced. Morton performs excerpts from Gregory's nightclub and television routines with spot-on timing and the laughs are plentiful. He makes the monologues that advance characterization and narrative soar like operatic arias, with crescendos and diminuendos rendered with musical sensitivity and rhythm that's seductive.

At times, Morton shares the stage with John Carlin, who shoulders a host of thankless little roles — stage hands, gofers, hecklers, a mediocre stand-up comic. Carlin handles his assignments with chameleonic skill and unobtrusive stage presence. Yet Turn Me Loose is essentially a single-actor piece and one of the most effective of those in recent memory.

The production, modest in physical scale, fits handily in the tiny downstairs auditorium at the Westside Theatre (which, in its down-at-heels condition, is an ideal venue for a drama set largely in dives and clubs and television studios). Designers Chris Barreca (settings) and Stephen Strawbridge (lighting) utilize the architecture of the theater's interior and a few projections to evoke Gregory's on-stage and backstage worlds. By keeping scenic accoutrements to a minimum, Barreca ensures quick and easy scene changes, which are enhanced by Strawbridge's skillful lighting plot and Leon Rothenberg's arresting sound design.

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Turn Me Loose by Gretchen Law Directed by John Gould Rubin Cast: Joe Morton (Dick Gregory) and John Carlin (Stand Up Comic, Heckler, Cabbie, and others) Scenic Design: Chris Barreca Costume Design: Susan Hilferty Lighting Design: Stephen Strawbridge Sound Design: Leon Rothenberg Properties Supervisor: Kathy Fabian Production Manager: Libby Jensen Production Stage Manager: Erin Cass Dramaturg: Morgan Jenness Produced by John Legend, Get Lifted Film Co., Mike Jackson, Jackie Judd, The Private Theatre, Eric Falkenstein, Ron Simons, Beth Hubbard, Elliot Osagie, Mary Ellen Lorenzo, Czekaj Artistic Productions, Peter Askin, Jamie deRoy, Mike Fine & Ken Wirth Running Time: 80 minutes The Westside Theatre, 407 West 43rd Street From 5/3/16; opening 5/19/16; closing 7/12/16 Tuesdays at 7 pm; Wednesdays at 2 pm and 7:30 pm; Thursdays at 7:30 pm; Fridays at 8 pm; Saturdays at 2 pm and 8 pm; and Sundays at either 2 pm or 3 pm (check schedule for particular Sundays). Tickets are $79. Reviewed by Charles Wright at 5/14/16 press preview.

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