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I am now at Arena Stage in Washington, DC remounting Turn Me Loose, the play about Dick Gregory that The Private theatre helped develop and produce off-Broadway two years ago at The West Side Theater and last year at the Wallis Annenberg Center in LA and now here in DC at Arena Stage. This is a project I created years ago as part of a larger, devised piece called ’68, about the year and the decade.
Mounting Turn Me Loose in DC has such powerful meaning as Dick Gregory made DC his home for many of the later years of his life. He was beloved throughout the city and greeted affectionately here by so many who recognized and knew him. So, Arena’s decision to mount the play here takes on a very special meaning.
But there is more. Dick Gregory passed away only a little more than a year ago. The memorial happened while we were rehearsing. He saw the events at Charlottesville from his hospital bed and was fully aware of the Trump era in his last months.
Since beginning work on this play in 2009 I have grown to learn that our subject was more prescient than I had ever known; that he said things in the 60’s and 70’s that seem, in retrospect, almost eerily knowledgeable of our future. Through fasting to protest the Vietnam War, he discovered the market manipulations of the food industry, and then the medical industry. In these discoveries, he anticipated the rest of our awareness by at least a generation.
Dick Gregory anticipated the extreme disparity of wealth in our country and talked about it in the late 60’s. That was eerily prescient. And he understood racism as so much more than a correctable malady; but an historical legacy. And he was an activist in the truest sense of the word. He was eternally active – actually, and truly never inactive – and he sacrificed a phenomenally lucrative career to activism. Gave it up. Just threw it away. That is why he never became Bill Cosby or Richard Pryor, or Red Foxx. He never did a series. He traded his career for activism.
And so, as we progress in this endeavor, here in our nation’s capitol, I become more and more aware of my responsibility to make sure this work remains faithful to the legacy of the man who is its subject. And our writer, Gretchen Law, becomes more and more aware of her responsibility to make sure the material accounts for the times in which we live and, while not pandering to current events, assures our audience that this great man’s legacy continues as his life did, the job of leading us to a deeper understanding of our future.
So today, I find myself with a very particular task, one with unique obstacles – how to do a play about a hero; how to keep it updated, while preventing contemporary events from dominating. And while I am very much in the thrall of Dick Gregory, the more I’ve gotten to know him, the more I want to make sure this play lets the world know he was a seer. He saw the future. And the benefits of that insight are to be found much more in the depths of his understanding than in the mere magic of his prognostication. I hope there are people reading this that might be able to make it to the production. If you do, I am confident you will feel rewarded.
Oh, and by the way: Dick Gregory was a stand up comic, if you didn’t already know. He was (and the play is) phenomenally funny.