Edwin Lee Gibson as Dick Gregory in “Turn Me Loose” at Arena Stage. (Margot Schulman)
Theater critic

The heckling is raw in “Turn Me Loose,” and you can get in on it if you dare. Edwin Lee Gibson plays comedian Dick Gregory in this biographical drama of the comedian/activist, who died last year at the age of 84, and true to Gregory’s form, the joking gets serious. You want to call him something? He invites the audience to stand up in the light and do it.

It’s a stark moment, and reflective of the combative tone that saturates Gretchen Law’s 90-minute drama at Arena Stage. Gregory’s life and career were indelibly shaped by the civil rights era; he knew the breakthroughs of getting attention on late-night talk shows (and playing hardball to land the gig on dignified terms), and he lived through the setbacks of murders and assassinations. The show draws plenty of laughs with jokes that still sting: a long story about moving into a white neighborhood, cutting his lawn and being mistaken for “help” that culminates in a racy punchline too explosively funny to spoil here.

But Dick Gregory knew, and Law underlines, that at some point it’s just not funny anymore.

“Do you want to be funny?” Gregory is asked at one point during an interview. The answer comes slow, and it drives the point home.

Bio-dramas can be hero worship, and Law’s script — fully titled “A Play About Comic Genius Dick Gregory” — does not break the mold. (The play premiered when Gregory was alive, and the extensive producing credits for this show include John Legend.) Director John Gould Rubin sticks close to the comedy-club environment of Christopher Barreca’s showbizzy set as the stream-of-consciousness scenes hit the high points of Gregory’s life.

There’s Gregory in the early 1960s, a hip-looking young man cracking savvy jokes, cradling a cocktail and a cigarette, getting a gig in front of Southerners at the Playboy Club. There’s Gregory in later years, an aged sage wagging his finger at us about the conspiracies we just won’t get wise to, from food (he evangelized for a strict vegetarian diet) to undying American racism.


Edwin Lee Gibson as Dick Gregory. (Margot Schulman)

Gibson sinks into the halting cadences of the elder Gregory so thoroughly that at times it slows the performance. But the upside is the edge of the material, still sharp enough to make a D.C. audience gasp or snap their fingers in solidarity. The elder Gregory reckons that “Being white is an attitude,” and that there aren’t actually more than three (give or take) white people on the planet: Vladi­mir Putin, the Koch brothers and Mitch McConnell.

There’s a second figure on stage, often on the sidelines: white actor John Carlin, playing such characters as an interviewer and a braying heckler who hurls the n-word mercilessly. This is where the performance clicks, with Gibson absorbing the invective, digesting it slowly, processing and sending cultural venom back as wisecrack or frank truth. Gibson’s got a good cold stare and an equally winning way of luring you into his confidence, and the audience hangs with him as he pauses before delivering a laugh line or a sermon.

You can’t call “Turn Me Loose” refreshingly artful, but it’s efficient, and it feels like an accurate portrait of the chronicler and front-line political participant (he ran for Chicago mayor and for president in the 1960s). It’s also, as the finger-snapping audience response demonstrates, an indictment of present times that have not yet made his commentary irrelevant.

Turn Me Loose, by Gretchen Law. Directed by John Gould Rubin. Costumes, Susan Hilferty; lights, Stephen Strawbridge; sound design, Leon Rothenberg. Through Oct. 14 at Arena Stage. Tickets: $40-$115, subject to change. 202-488-3300 or visit arenastage.org