Friday, June 10, 2016

Review of "Turn Me Loose"

The early career of comedian and social activist Dick Gregory is searingly portrayed in the new play, Turn Me Loose, by actor Joe Morton.  Better known for his roles in blockbuster movies and television programs, he perfectly embodies the performer, creating a riveting, funny and heartfelt performance.

Playwright Gretchen Law traces Gregory’s rise through nightclubs and onto the national spotlight, where his blistering comedy routines centering on racism, inequality and life as a Black man resonated with audiences of all colors.  The performer was also deeply involved in the civil rights struggles as a fervid supporter, fundraiser and confidante to movement leaders.  The dynamics and tension between being a successful entertainer and committed social activist are vividly displayed in the production.  Law sets the play, primarily in the 1960’s, but jumps back and forth in time to show pivotal moments in Gregory’s life.

Morton, a theater veteran before the lure of Hollywood limited his New York stage appearances, gives a tour de force performance as the legendary entertainer.  He infuses Gregory with a burning desire to succeed as a Black comic with a conscious.  He is adept at telling a joke or relating a humorous story.  Morton also exhibits the pain and emotional toll of the performer as well as his compassion and commitment to his art and activism.  Actor John Carlin materializes throughout the production in a number of different roles, giving Morton someone to play off of amid the good times and bad during his long and distinguished career.

Director John Gould Rubin has the luxury of staging the show in a small performance space, which furnishes audience members the up close feel of a nightclub.  He keeps Morton, for the most part, at the edge of the stage, establishing an intimate and personal setting.  Rubin also skillfully and effortlessly moves the play from comic performances to scenes of dramatic tirades to heartbreaking angst.

Turn Me Loose, a powerful, thought-provoking production with a star turn by Joe Morton.

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