Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Gregory (1932-2017) began his career as a stand-up comic in the early 1960s, telling things like they were to mainstream white audiences who had never experienced anyone like himand making them laugh through the pain, anger and surprise. Later in his life, Gregory settled in Washington, DC, where Arena Stage brings him back to the stage in a 100-minute tour de force titled Turn Me Loose.
African-American comedians from Richard Pryor to Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock point to Gregory as a hero, not just an inspiration. He never shied away from a fight, skewering both liberals and Klansmen as he went and, according to Gretchen Law's play, being dubbed "the Negro Lenny Bruce." The performance alternates between scenes of Gregory's early standup routines and, decades later, reminiscences of his long life and experiences.
Gibson totally inhabits his body, assuming the posture of a youthful Gregory, pacing or willing himself to stay calm, constantly aware of the risks of being a black man in a white man's world. He becomes more comfortable as he steps onto the edge of controversy (the play incorporates part of Gregory's actual performance before a white, largely Southern audience in Chicago) before stepping over the edge into activism. As an old man, Gregory talks about political manipulation ("while you're fighting with your neighbor, rich men are robbing you blind") and his work in the civil rights movement, helping Medgar Evers in Mississippi shortly before Evers' assassination. "If you listen, the universe tells you what's really going on," he says.
Director John Gould Rubin maintains a rhythm like a heartbeat throughout the performance, which also features John Carlin as a succession of interviewers and foul-mouthed hecklers. Christopher Barreca's scenic design and Stephen Strawbridge's lighting design place Gregory in a performance space of microphones, chairs, and vivid red and blue accent lights; Susan Hilferty has costumed him in a simple black suit and white shirt.