Review: Dick Gregory: An Evening of Comedy & Jazz at The Kennedy Center

Internationally known comedian and civil rights activist, Dick Gregory, closed out the last of a series of five District of Comedy Festival performances along with a young all white jazz trio who opened and closed Gregory’s “integrated” comedy act. Dick Gregory has been on the standup scene for more than half a century and at 85 he’s become more sardonic than comedic. His Kennedy Center performance in the Terrace Theater on June 25th was a ‘take-no-prisoners’ blowout on black folks and white folks alike on just about every subject you could imagine on race relations in America today.

Dick Gregory. Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Center.
Dick Gregory. Photo courtesy of the Kennedy Center.

Dick Gregory became accustomed to performing before white audiences early in his career after Hugh Hefner gave him a lucky break and a three-year contract to do standup at the Playboy Club in Chicago.  He became adept at doing what a comic does — “standing flat foot and talking to white folks.” And white folks definitely had to have a thick skin to enjoy Gregory’s biting humor at this performance. Case in point: Dick Gregory had two tallish black guys and one taller white guy join him in onstage as he held up a life-size banner of two gorillas. This was Gregory’s convoluted way to prove that whites’ long-torso body type and thin lips make white people look more like monkeys than black people do.

It was that kind of night.

But black folks also couldn’t hide from Dick Gregory’s cutting humor addressing them all evening with the N-word to which he unabashedly admitted he never agreed to stop using. Even President Obama was not black enough in Gregory’s estimation and he said that Obama was way too polite and not loud-talking enough to be black. He had the crowd roaring as he talked about the watermelon garden he would have planted at the White House if he had been President. Getting a little into the political that really didn’t seem to capture much of his attention, he said that Mexicans didn’t steal any jobs from black folks because blacks didn’t have any jobs to begin with.

It was that kind of night.

Dick Gregory’s brand of standup is less joke central than outspoken commentary. This show was pretty much in black and white as he focused on racism and race relations. He left much of American politics, his normal stomping grounds, in the background except for his take on the fallout from Brexit, a little on Donald Trump, Al Sharpton, and a moving tribute to Muhammad Ali. And although he flipped through a stack of newspapers onstage supposedly referencing current events, much of his routine had to do with old news.

No one was sacrosanct as Dick Gregory humorously lashed out at: Adam and Eve; the Bible Story of Jesus; the black church and Christian hypocrisy; marriage and children; the merits of Cialis; childbirth, Uncle Tom and fat black people; money-grubbing pharmaceutical companies; a seeming fascination with the white woman who was face mauled by her pet chimp; derivation of the words “honky” and “red neck”; and imagined customer service if he were to create the first black airlines–“’Tamika Airlines’ promises to leave late but to get you there on time.” Beneath Gregory’s humor-laced tongue-lashing, however, was an inspiring message never to accept injustice and to always feel good about yourself no matter what color you happen to be.

Framing Dick Gregory’s one hour and 20-minute standup, energetic pianist Joe Alterman was the driving force who led the trio’s opening and closing 40-minutes of high spirited contemporary jazz. Alterman, a Les McCann protégé, has been noted for his opening act at New York’s Blue Note Jazz Club and Birdland performances. In Argyle socks exposed by his high water pants and a dapper emerald tie, Joe’s exuberant foot stomping style set the band’s quick, dance-music tempo.

He was accompanied by his regular bass man Nathaniel Schroeder and a surprisingly versatile sit-in drummer Justin Chesarek who pulled out a tambourine as they covered one of Marvin Gaye’s vintage hits that Alterman features on his most recent CD – “I Heard It through the Grapevine”. The trio also played Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Earth, Wind and Fire, with yesteryear Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne.

An overwhelmed will-call box office contributed to a late arriving crowd, and although I arrived before the 7 pm start time, the trio had already been playing and were into their second tune. They returned to the stage to close out the show with an equally balanced set after Gregory’s rambling, Grumpy Old Men monologue. However, without an emcee to guide the show, most of the confused patrons began leaving the theater when the house lights came up sending the error message, after Gregory had exited stage left, that the performance was over. Most of the audience missed an inspired closing set and the trio played to an almost empty house.

Dick Gregory: An Evening of Comedy & Jazz was a perfect opportunity to enjoy the legendary Dick Gregory if this had been on your bucket list. Caustically satirical and derisively ironic, Dick Gregory is still Dick Gregory, but you might have had to know this in advance. Otherwise, this performance might have been a somewhat uneven evening of not-so-funny comedy along with some terrific contemporary jazz.

Running Time: Two hours, with no intermission.

Dick Gregory: An Evening of Comedy & Jazz played on Saturday, June 25, 2016 at The Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater – 2700 F Street, in Washington, DC. For upcoming events, go to their performance calendar.

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Ramona Harper
Ramona Harper is a retired Foreign Service Officer (career diplomat) of the U.S. Department of State. While in the Foreign Service, her specialization was Public Diplomacy and Cultural Affairs. Her overseas postings were Senegal, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Panama and Germany where she presented American visual and performing artists on behalf of the U.S. Government. Before joining the Foreign Service, Ramona was a counselor and administrator in higher education. Her academic work includes a Master of Science degree in Counselor Education from Florida International University and a Master of Science degree from the National Defense University. Ramona is an avid theatergoer, dance enthusiast and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.