Comedian & activist Dick Gregory, illustration by Charles Chaisson, Photo courtesy of Arena Stage
“Turn Me Loose” is true to the spirit of Dick Gregory, who was a stand-up comedian, activist, author and serious commentator on politics. He is known as the first African-American comedian to expose audiences to racial comedy. In confronting bigotry head-on with biting humor and charm, Gregory turned activism into an art form, or perhaps he turned art into activism. The show now at Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater, until Oct. 21, is both entertaining and enlightening as it weaves Gregory’s life story with the history of the times of his life.
Obie-Award winner and former stand-up comedian Edwin Lee Gibson portrays comedian-activist Dick Gregory, and John Carlin plays all other roles: stand-up comic, emcee, interviewer, heckler and cabbie.
The following is an exclusive interview with John Carlin, who appeared in the Off-Broadway show in New York.
How has the show evolved since opening in New York?
We had a joke when we did it last year in Los Angeles: that events in the world seemed to be conspiring to make the play even more relevant than when it first opened in 2016. For better or worse, that still seems to be the case as we begin our run here at Arena Stage in 2018. And from my perspective, as the one who plays all the racist white characters, it becomes even more important to accurately portray that ugly reality.
Gregory, who died in Washington in August 2017, was at your opening night in New York in 2016. What was it like to meet him?
It was one of the great honors of my life, and one of the gifts of working on this play for the past four years, to meet Dick Gregory and his wife Lillian, and be welcomed as a friend by the Gregory family. He loved the play, and came repeatedly, bringing different kids and grandkids each time. I was told by one of his daughters while he was still alive, “We talk about you at home.” So I can die happy now.
Gregory was an activist for civil rights as well as environmental and humanitarian causes. He ran for mayor of Chicago and was a one-time presidential candidate, in addition to telling his own story in his autobiography. What have you learned about Gregory, and how has it affected your own activism?
Dick Gregory was such a visionary, in so many ways. He was never afraid to speak truth to power, and to use his brilliant humor as a tool to enlighten. He also wasn’t afraid to put his body on the line.
The activist community of which I’m a part fully embraces this legacy—using music, theater and humor to address issues such as immigrant rights, police brutality and climate change. There are always people braver than you are, whose job it is to lead the way toward action, and change. Dick Gregory was one of those people—a true hero.
What is it like bringing this show to Arena Stage in DC?
It’s especially exciting for me to bring this show to DC, and Arena Stage. Besides having special significance as a home base for Mr. Gregory and his family, my parents met as aspiring young actors at Catholic University in the 50’s, and my mother—the actress Frances Sternhagen—grew up in DC, and began her decades-long career at the original Arena Stage in 1953.
Despite my family’s background in acting and theater (several siblings as well)—or maybe because of it!—I resisted the actor’s life, and have only been acting professionally for the past 5-6 years. I used to be a professional musician/songwriter. I’m still getting used to the inherent instability of the business—never sure what your next gig will be.
I have a cool, funny indie short film coming out next year, called “Roddy and Doddy,” taking this play with music called “America Is Hard To See” that I did Off-Broadway to Edinburgh Fringe.
Oh, and I’ll make sure to be available to do “Turn Me Loose” when it goes to Broadway…!
BY Sheila Wickouski