by Darnell Lamont Walker
“Everyone stand up, and on the count of three, I want you all to yell ‘Nigger,’” Joe Morton in the role of Dick Gregory instructed us. The entire audience stood to their feet, some more nervous than others.
“Do we say it?” I heard a young white boy near me whisper to his sister.
Me sitting directly behind an entire row of white folks at a play about the life of Dick Gregory could be nothing more than hilarious, ironic, and most of all, awkward. “I will enjoy this too much,” I told the Black woman sitting beside me just minutes before the lights dimmed. She knew exactly what I meant and laughed.
When I agreed to see Joe Morton play comedian Dick Gregory in Turn Me Loose there were no guarantees as to what I would see. Well except for Morton. To not be an admirer of this actor’s talent is not to be an admirer of the performance arts, whatsoever.
What was not guaranteed, and it’s a great thing it wasn’t, was me walking into the theater on the heels of Ben Vereen, and directly followed by Dick Gregory, his wife Lillian, and family. There I stood, 15 minutes from curtain and this was already a night I’d write about in a letter to my grandfather.
In 1994 I read “Nigger” by Dick Gregory and decided I was free. This great emancipator of a young, black, Virginian, I imagined, would never be thanked directly, but that night happened.
When I see a show I’m focused on the talent on the stage or on the screen. I wait to see how long it takes me to forget about the actor and only see who they’ve been working so hard to become. That said, I didn’t see Joe Morton until the show ended and we were shaking hands on the corner of West 43rd Street and 8th Avenue. I laughed until I was damn near crossing the line into heckling, then suddenly I found myself fighting back tears wondering how I didn’t notice he’d gone from entertaining us to educating us. We’d gone from hysterically taunting Southern racists to tearfully mourning the death of Medgar Evers in less than 20 seconds, and it was creatively and intellectually inspiring.
John Carlin, Turn Me Loose’s outstanding co-star, appeared on stage in a double-breasted suit, armed with old jokes about wives and race, and instantly we knew we had been transported where Dick needed us to be to begin his story.
“Don’t write so much of a review,” Drew Shade, our founder at Broadway Black said before we parted ways after the show. Still feeling the high of the show. “Just write about your experience.” It’s been years since I’ve had a more incredible experience in New York City. To have many of life’s fantasies met while simultaneously being creatively and intellectually fed is, in short, [expletive] amazing! In a short letter to the 12-year-old me, I wrote: be patient, all your heroes will know of you, too.
And without saving on the dramatics, I end this with:
Knowing eternity has not yet physically happened for man, we hope our actions and our voices echo across the ages to come. People who would otherwise ignore our existence will hear our names and know how hard we fought and how deeply passionate we were. The name Richard “Dick” Claxton Gregory, thanks to this superb cast and crew, will undoubtedly echo. And if I am fortunate to ever tell my own story, it will be known I walked among giants.
Tickets to the off-Broadway production of Turn Me Loose can be purchased here!