Review: ‘Turn Me Loose’ at Arena Stage

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Long before Hannah Gadsby premiered her anti-comedy stand-up special Nanette, in which she lambasts the sexist entertainment industry and forces audiences to reckon with their own complicity, there was Dick Gregory. The late Dick Gregory, a D.C. native who died in August of last year, was a pioneer in the sort of comedy that privileges activism and social criticism as its raison d’etre. But Gregory wasn’t working in an era where black comedians like Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle could easily establish themselves as the staples of the comedy industry that they are today. Arena Stage’s D.C.-area premiere of Turn Me Loose is a love letter to the legacy of Mr. Gregory, a deeply personal exploration of his work, his frustration and suffering, and an ode to his deep intelligence and grace in the face of a changing, but persistently unjust world.

Edwin Lee Gibson (Dick Gregory) in Turn Me Loose, running September 6 -October 14, 2018 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.
Edwin Lee Gibson (Dick Gregory) in Turn Me Loose, running September 6 -October 14, 2018 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Turn Me Loose traces the working life of Mr. Gregory, from novelty to breakout star to public figure and civil rights activist, through the words of Gregory himself, as played by a captivating Edwin Lee Gibson. Aside from John Carlin, who occasionally comes on stage in different white character roles, from nazi heckler to interviewer to cabbie, Turn Me Loose plays out like Gibson’s one-man show, in a series of mock stand-up routines, monologues, and one-ended phone calls that show Gregory’s gradual maturation from bigotry mocker to one of the most vocal authorities on racial inequity in America of our times.

Written by Gretchen Law and directed by John Gould Rubin, Turn Me Loose plays out like one long jazz symphony, the scenes weaved together like vignettes of distant memories from a long, eventful life. Clocking in at a crisp 90 minutes, Gibson expertly shifts from performer to private individual, and in and out of Gregory’s older and younger versions, sometimes mid-scene. In his stand-up segments, of which there are several, Gibson directly addresses the crowd, implicating us as the very audience members he was performing for in 1968 at the Playboy Club, as well as an essential part of the production– we stand in for the very public gaze Gregory learns to manage, (and later, provoke and question) throughout the evolution of his career.

The set design by Christopher Barreca is stripped down to a few stools and tables, a bottle of whiskey and a pack of cigarettes–all the better to focus on Gregory’s matter-of-fact narration, and a script stuffed with beautiful, visual language. Gibson’s performance, even as he addresses the most dour of subjects such as the death of Emmett Till, is unshaking, never melodramatic or over-the-top. Instead, Gibson’s Gregory is composed and intelligent, tinged with melancholy and wear. While the one-man show structure of this production limits the scope of Gregory’s story and might leave some wanting a broader picture of this fascinating figure, the format succeeds in illuminating the often neglected nuances and psychological shiftings of Gregory’s personal journey. Turn Me Loose might seem repetitive at moments, but this is simply the cost of its attuned respect and focus on Gregory’s intellectual and emotional growth through time.

Fans of stand-up and more traditional theater-goers alike will find something to love about this production of Turn Me Loose, which was originally co-produced by John Legend Off-Broadway in 2016. Since then, this theatrical dramatization of the life of Mr. Dick Gregory has found great success in New York City and throughout the United States. Tts homecoming to the birthplace of Mr. Gregory in Washington, D.C. is a first class addition.  

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Turn Me Loose plays through October 21, 2018, at Arena Stage – 1101 Sixth Street SW, Washington, DC 20024. Purchase tickets at the box office, or go online.