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Review: Joe Morton Spectacular as Dick Gregory in Gretchen Law's Dynamic TURN ME LOOSE

With all due respect to whoever may be headlining at Caroline's or the Comedy Cellar, some of the best stand-up in town is likely to be found these days at the Westside Theatre, where Joe Morton is doing a spectacular job recreating the finesse, the sublimated anger and the stinging wit of comedy trailblazer and civil rights activist Dick Gregory in Gretchen Law's dynamic bio-play, Turn Me Loose.

Joe Morton (Photo: Monique Carboni)

"I can see that quite a few of you northern liberals are here tonight," the stage character says to his audience right at the outset. "Come out to see a real n***** do his thing."

St. Louis-born Gregory started performing stand-up while serving in the army, and by the late 1950s had become one of the few black comics to gain success playing nightclubs patronized primarily by white audiences. His routines about dealing with racism were a big hit with white people who were sympathetic to the civil rights movement. ("Down south, if you colored and want to vote, they make you take a test. On nuclear physics!")

His big break came when Hugh Hefner signed him for a six-week gig at the Chicago Playboy Club. ("There's a lot of good advantages to ridin' in the back of the bus. Next time you get on a bus, just notice where that emergency door is located.") Next came an offer to appear on Jack Paar's "The Tonight Show." Initially he declined, noting how Paar would never have black artists sit with him to chat after they perform; a privilege reserved for his white guests. The era's most powerful person in late-night television gave in so that he could have Dick Gregory on his show.

The American press called him the Negro Lenny Bruce, to which he replied "You gotta' read those Congo papers where they callin' Lenny Bruce the white Dick Gregory!"

Law's play, primarily a solo piece, bounces between the modern-day Gregory - who is 83 and attended opening night - and scenes of his younger days, as we see his evolution from being a performer who comments on social injustice to being an activist in the middle of the fight. The play gets its title from the last words of his friend Medgar Evers, a leader in the Mississippi voting rights and desegregation movement who was assassinated in 1963.

Directed by John Gould Rubin, Morton seamlessly segues from an energetic youth who uses gags to combat hate to an elderly sage who demands attention when speaking out on the issues of the day. ("Occupy Wall Street!? N*****, occupy your life!")

Joe Morton and John Carlin
(Photo: Monique Carboni)

As convincing as Morton is playing the character of Dick Gregory, he's just as convincing as a stand-up comic, playing routines to the theatre audience with a sharp ear for their reactions and a jaunty aggressive confidence.

In one scene he indignantly responds to a white interviewer who, in 1968, asks if he's deliberately decided not to be funny anymore. John Carlin does a terrific job, playing small roles like the interviewer, a slick warm-up comic and a heckler who keeps calling Gregory a n*****. The star answers back that he gets a $50 bonus every time an audience member calls him a n***** and, in one of the play's most interesting and discomforting moments, he encourages everyone in the audience to stand up and call him a n*****. ("Don't miss out on a great opportunity. Stand up!... It's only a word.")

Gregory's relationship with that word, which is used frequently by the character both on and off stage, is a major theme of the play. He says he used it as the title of his autobiography "so that every time [my mother] heard that word, she would know that they were advertising my book."

The final time he uses it, at the play's finish, is a surprising moment of pathos.

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