With New York City stage credits dating back to 1968, and numerous screen and television appearances, Mr. Morton truly is a veteran actor. Two years ago he won an Emmy for his villainous role on the television series Scandal.
Wearing a black suit, white shirt and black tie, the mature Morton with his expressive face, smooth resonant voice and fluid physicality, vividly captures the essence of “The black Lenny Bruce” at various stages of his life. He forcefully addresses and engages the audience while at a microphone during his act, backstage, sitting near the front row of the stage or walking through the theater. It is one of those memorably electrifying performances to be treasured.
The snappy opening has actor John Carlin as a nightclub comic in Chicago in 1963, rapidly addressing the audience with one-liners. Mr. Carlin performs throughout the play in a variety of small roles with flair and has great chemistry with Morton.
The play’s title are the last words spoken by Gregory’s friend, the murdered civil rights activist Medgar Evers before he died of a gunshot wound in 1963 by a white supremacist.
Instead of a straightforward chronological presentation, playwright Gretchen Law inventively structures this 90-minute play as nine scenes that shift from the 1960’s to 2012 and the present. Ms. Law skillfully weaves all of the biographical details with artful concision into dramatically revelatory sequences. One can know nothing about Dick Gregory and still be entertained as Law’s execution is so informatively accomplished.
But my tongue… was my switchblade. My humor was my sword.
Gregory was born in poverty in St. Louis, Missouri in 1932. After excelling as a track runner in high school he went to college in Illinois and was drafted into the United States Army in 1954. There he began performing as a comedian in talent shows. Following his discharge he moved to Chicago and began appearing in nightclubs.
In 1961, Hugh Hefner saw him and was so impressed that he booked him at his Chicago Playboy Club. During this successful engagement he was profiled in Time magazine and made his first television appearance on the Tonight Starring Jack Paar. This all launched his show business career. That was sidetracked by his civil rights and political activism in the 1960’s, and later his health food advocacy.
He published Nigger: An Autobiography by Dick Gregory in 1964, and that incendiary word is heard many times during the play as he recounts and deals with the racism in the United States in that era.
Director John Gould Rubin’s swift staging moves the action from one scene to another perfectly utilizing scenic designer Christopher Barreca’s creative, cavernous black set. This spare and spacious environment serves as the various locales in the different eras with a small screen where the year and place are indicated with slides.
Stephen Strawbridge ‘s focused lighting design adds to the hermetic presentation. Leon Rothenberg’s sound design is a proficient blend of music and background tones. The simple clothes of costume designer Susan Hilferty wonderfully visualize the characters timelessly.
Turn Me Loose is a riveting showcase for Joe Morton’s dynamism and for dramatizing the cultural significance of Dick Gregory.
Turn Me Loose (extended through July 17, 2016)
The Westside Theatre, 407 West 43rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.turnmelooseplay.com
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission