Review: Joe Morton is hilarious and heart breaking as funnyman-turned-political activist Dick Gregor

October 21, 2017 | By Bruce R. Feldman

"Turn Me Loose," The Wallis, Beverly Hills, Oct. 9 - Nov. 19, 2017

In the mid-1950s entertainment in America began to show signs that a profound transformation was about to take place. Amusing the masses was no longer its only goal. Where they once avoided sensitive social and political subjects, some writers, musicians, and comedians began to incorporate controversy and invective into their work. If it made audiences uncomfortable, that was the point.

Joe Morton as comedian-activist Dick Gregory in "Turn Me Loose" (Photo: Lawrence K. Ho)

This unexpected sea change could be seen in popular music, the Broadway theater and, perhaps most conspicuously, standup comedy. (It didn’t reach television sitcoms until the 1960s.) Rock and Roll was first, although in the beginning the form seemed to advocate gratuitous rebellion more than pointed social upheaval. Moon, June, spoon were out, replaced by the promise to “rock, rock, rock till broad daylight.”

Some big Broadway musicals revealed darker undertones, too. My Fair Lady and Damn Yankees may have defined the decade, but so did Gypsy in 1959. Book writer Arthur Laurents and lyricist Stephen Sondheim rendered Ethel Merman’s Madame Rose as a shameless bully, who, in order to finally realize her own failed dreams, pushed her kids into a bleak life on the tawdry fringes of show business.

West Side Story, Sondheim’s other blockbuster musical of that era, dealt with racial prejudice and resentment, presenting a cynical if humorous and tuneful view of privation among New York’s lower classes. A few years earlier, South Pacific employed mixed marriage as one of its themes. Yes, all of these shows also were enormously diverting – with established stars, hit songs, flashy production numbers, romance – but now theatergoers had to take their distraction with a heaping dose of moral probity, as well.

Broadway catered to the affluent, but everyone could enjoy standup comedy for free on TV variety shows or for the price of a drink in clubs and bars across the land. Borscht Belt comics – or those who performed in their style – like Henny Youngman, George Burns, Rodney Dangerfield, Phyllis Diller, and Bob Newhart stuck to traditional topics: their wives, children, mothers-in-law. But a new generation of funnymen was gaining in stature. Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl joked about race and religion. They were angry, unfiltered, insulting. Bruce was vulgar.

No one embodied the partisan firestorm of American race and politics more than Dick Gregory, a black comedian from St. Louis who started his career as a run-of-the-mill jokester, evolved into a political observer, and eventually left clowning to become an activist for social and racial justice.

He walked out on stage, surveyed the unfriendly audience, and declared, “Well, I’m happy to be here tonight.”

It’s this arc that is the subject of Gretchen Law's absorbing, gratifying play Turn Me Loose, now in a limited run at The Wallis, Beverly Hills. The show opens at Chicago’s Tivoli Theatre in 1960. A small-time comedian, nimbly played by John Carlin, recites a quick catalogue of tired gags. (“I take my wife everywhere. The problem is she always comes back.”) Morton as a youthful, aiming-to-please Gregory is up next, also sticking to conventional themes with nary a hint of what he’s to become later in life. We soon see that, as the next scene is set in 2017, a few months before the prickly comedian’s death.

There’s another memorable scene early on when Gregory describes how Hugh Hefner saw his act at a small Chicago night spot and invited him to headline at the Playboy Club, a first for a black comedian. The place was filled with white Southerners in town for a frozen food convention. As the playwright tells it, the club manager didn’t want him to go on. Gregory insisted. He walked out on stage, surveyed the unfriendly audience, and declared, “Well, I’m happy to be here tonight.”

Later Morton as Gregory recounts the phone call he had with Jack Paar declining to appear on his talk show as he wouldn’t be asked to sit on the couch to chat with the host after his set of jokes. Paar relented, another first for a black comedian.

The play seamlessly swings back and forth between eras, attempting to give us a complete portrait of Gregory’s life, views, comedy, and political activism. It largely succeeds in achieving that, thanks to not only effective, honest writing, but also to John Gould Rubin’s skillful, creative direction and Joe Morton’s fully realized, indomitable performance.

The veteran actor, who came to prominence in 1984 in John Sayles's Brother From Another Planet – one of the defining films of the blossoming indie period – is simply marvelous as he bounces effortlessly, and gracefully, between the young, energetic Gregory and the slightly stooped over, gravelly voiced, reflective 84-year-old activist. It’s a bravura performance, a pleasure to watch, and deserving of the standing ovation he received from the audience.

"Turn Me Loose" is at The Wallis, Beverly Hills through November 19, www.thewallis.org, (310) 746-4000