Edwin Lee Gibson spent only a month formally rehearsing for his role as iconic comedian and activist Dick Gregory in “Turn Me Loose.” But it’s a part the 53-year-old actor has been preparing for most of his life.
“I’ve really always lived my life with him as my marker,” says Gibson, who recalls listening to Gregory’s comedy albums as a teenager growing up in Houston. “I was watching tapes of him last year before I got this role.”
Two years after “Turn Me Loose” premiered off-Broadway, with “Scandal’s” Joe Morton in the lead role and John Legend among its producers, Gibson will play Gregory for a run at Arena Stage that opens Thursday.
Gretchen Law’s play charts Gregory’s rise as a socially subversive stand-up in the 1960s, when he became the first black comedian invited for a “Tonight Show” interview, and his subsequent retreat from the entertainment industry in favor of a life spent fighting for civil rights. One year after Gregory’s death at age 84 in Washington, where he spent the latter part of his life, Gibson is conscious of the parallels between the racial injustice Gregory fought decades ago and the current political landscape.
“One thing Dick Gregory’s story has shown is that not much has changed, and people, even well-meaning people, want things to change only so much,” says Gibson, an Obie Award-winning actor and playwright with more than 90 theater credits. “He is the kind of person, the kind of figure, that really shines a light on all of us. ... That’s what he stood for up until his passing, and what he leaves in the air for us.”
Featuring just two actors — Gibson in the lead role and John Carlin filling several bit parts — “Turn Me Loose” relies on Gregory’s outsize persona to captivate audiences. Gibson, a former comic who got his start opening for Thea Vidale in 1989 and went on to spend six years moonlighting as a stand-up, has an appreciation for the “intense observation” a comedian like Gregory must have relied on to develop such incisive material.
“In the functioning of the joke, [Gibson] is rigorous about what the joke actually is posturing,” says director John Gould Rubin, who also helmed the play’s off-Broadway run. “What is it saying? Where is it being critical at the same time that it’s being funny? Where is it being confrontational?
“It’s really great because Dick Gregory was simultaneously immediate and also deeply thoughtful and conscious and aware.”
Gibson hopes to carry forward Gregory’s progressive ideals on race and poverty with similar care. Reflecting on the comedian’s political legacy, including a write-in campaign for president in 1968, Gibson lauded Gregory as “somebody who loved the country enough to consistently critique it, and to consistently critique himself.”
“There are far many more good people in the world than bad people, but there are far many more silent people than those that will speak,” Gibson says. “Some people are afraid for their lives, some people are afraid for their economics, some people are afraid for their status.
“He wasn’t afraid of any of those things, and neither am I.”
Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW; Thu. through Oct. 14, $41-$115.