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'This country is in trouble': Dick Gregory's political comedy takes on new meaning in 'Turn Me Loose'

Joe Morton plays comedian Dick Gregory in
Joe Morton plays comedian Dick Gregory in "Turn Me Loose."
The Wallis

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Comedy legend Dick Gregory died this August at the age of 84. 

The ground-breaking comic, writer and civil rights activist was working right up until the end. He even lent his input to a stage play about his life and work. That play is called “Turn Me Loose,” written by playwright Gretchen Law and starring the actor Joe Morton.

Morton is maybe best known for his portrayal of Rowan Pope, Olivia Pope’s father in the ABC series “Scandal.” But he’s also a veteran stage actor and says he jumped at the chance to play Dick Gregory, becoming close friends with him in the process.

“Turn Me Loose” opens this Friday at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills.

The Frame's John Horn recently spoke with Joe Morton and Paul Crewes, the artistic director of The Wallis, during an event for KPCC at the theater. It was just one day after Dick Gregory’s memorial in Landover, Maryland, which Joe Morton attended.

Interview highlights:

Joe Morton on what he learned about Dick Gregory at his memorial service:

The thing about Dick Gregory is that I think for the longest time people either did not know or forgot who he was. And one of the things that sort of struck me last night is there were still many, many people of all kinds of influence who remembered him and remembered all of the things that he did. Here's a man who was making millions of dollars as a comedian and decided to give all of that up to become an activist. And even at times, one of his sons said he saw contracts for millions of dollars and Dick would right away take the check and sign it over to some civil rights organization and that's who he was. He was one of those extraordinary human beings who was completely selfless.

Joe Morton on the evolution of Dick Gregory's comedy and his activism:

He said, "If I could make a bigot laugh, it might change him for the rest of his life," and that was really his first steps. And then very shortly after that, after The Jack Paar Show and so forth, when he was beginning to make millions of dollars, he decided laughter wasn’t enough. He said, "If you want to cure cancer, you don’t cure cancer by telling jokes." And so he met Medgar Evers and that's where we get the title of the play. "Turn me loose" are the last three words that Medgar Evers spoke before he died. And Medgar was the one who brought Dick into the civil rights movement. Dick was terrified of going to Mississippi and Medgar had invited him down and Medgar sort of showed him around and showed him what was going on down there and it was at that point that Dick decided that comedy wasn't enough.

Paul Crewes on why he decided "Turn Me Loose" was right for The Wallis:

This was a piece that I just thought was really important for us to be presenting on the West Coast, to be presenting in L.A., and to be presenting here at The Wallis, for so many reasons really. I mean, my history personally, I'm new to L.A. I only arrived here 18 months ago, but I was born in Brixton in 1961 and my father ran a black youth club which would be raided every night if he was there. And if he wasn't there, they would take people away. And he, during his time there, met Malcolm X and he met a number of people in the whole civil rights movement in America and in London at that time [so it] resonates with me. But I didn't know very much about Dick Gregory. And that was a shock to me because I'd come from the U.K., I thought I knew things, I didn't know about Dick Gregory. So when I read it, I thought This is a piece we should be doing. And there will be people like me who don't know about Dick Gregory and they should know about Dick Gregory. So that was the intention really of doing the piece.

Joe Morton on Dick Gregory dying the weekend of the violence in Charlottesville and whether it changes the import of the play:

It does in a way. I have one very small line in the middle of something and the line is just simply, "This country is in trouble." Now it's a very simple line, and they way we'd been doing it was one way, but now that all that's going on, like Charlottesville, and with the Trump Administration, it now has a resonance that seems much larger and much deeper. And I think the play will do the same. I think that what you'll find astounding about "Turn Me Loose" is that it's about a man who talked about things 40 or 50 years ago that are still happening today. And that's remarkable and very sad all at the same time.

To hear the full interview with Joe Morton and Paul Crewes, click the blue player above.

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