BWW Review: TURN ME LOOSE at Arena Stage
The late great comic genius/activist Dick Gregory was a trailblazer for so many reasons. He told it like it was and didn't care what you thought.
Take, for example, one of his jokes told at the top of Arena Stage's latest offering about Gregory called Turn Me Loose. Once in an interview, Gregory accused the U.S. Government of tapping his phone. The interviewer was floored. He replied, "If they are not then why would they let a black man who owes the phone company $12,000 keep his phone on?" These type of remarks and others are what we remember about Gregory in his television appearances and recordings.
Given all of that could be said about Gregory, it's unfortunate that Playwright Gretchen Law's script isn't very well balanced or very theatrical in construction (at least for me). A good portion of the play's proceedings involve recreations of Dick Gregory's (Edwin Lee Gibson) appearances in various venues. Law's script attempts to show us the bigotry he faced while on stage. Law's setting shifts back and forth between the 1960's and 2017 which is the year Gregory left us for good. For varying reasons, as Gregory grew older, the more bitter he became.
Some of the monologues, while humorous, go on longer than they should in a theatrical presentation. What is more interesting to me is when we get away from the jokes and focus on Gregory's life. He shares one story, in particular, that just shows you how fate works. Gregory is asked to appear at a NAACP function with its founder Medgar Evers. While there, Gregory's son dies and he has to leave before the event. That night, Gregory flies home to be with his grieving wife. Evers is gunned down in his driveway with his family inside. Gregory believes if he was there he would have been shot and that his son died so he could continue living. The show's title comes from the last words spoken by Evers. If that doesn't grab you, I'm not sure what will.
Another story concerns Gregory playing a gig at the Playboy Club for an all white southern audience. A heckler (John Carlin) just wouldn't let up and Gregory gives it right back to him. He consistently called Gregory the "N" word so Gregory finally says, "Every time you say that word my pay goes up." In the moment Gregory then asks the audience to stand up and dares any one of us to call him the same thing because it would be more money for him. As you can imagine, there is dead silence. I wanted more of those moments.
Turn Me Loose would be totally lost without a strong performer playing Dick Gregory and here Edwin Lee Gibson embodies Gregory to the point that you believe you are watching Gregory himself onstage. Gregory's voice and mannerisms are spot on. If you were to put an original recording and Gibson's performance side by side, you won't be able to tell the difference. His performance is that good.
John Carlin does well with his limited stage time playing several different characters. My favorite is the radio interviewer at The Hungry i in San Francisco who gets more and more uncomfortable as he interviews Gregory.
The show is well paced and Director John Gould Rubin's staging serves the piece well. I just wish he was able to reign in the playwright and focus the script a little better during the creation phase. (He was the one whose idea it was to create it.)
Christopher Barreca's minimalist set features vintage microphones for cool period atmosphere and Susan Hilferty's costume for Gregory captures his trademark look.
If you are a fan of Dick Gregory's stories and routines, you will most likely enjoy Turn Me Loose. If you want to see one heck of a performance by Edwin Lee Gibson, definitely see Turn Me Loose. If you want to know more about Dick Gregory, well, you should decide for yourself if the show does what it should for you.
Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.