Credit: Margot Schulman

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The Dick Gregory tribute Turn Me Loose, currently running at Arena Stage, contains all of the fire of the man himself. The production, which plays out like one of Gregory’s stand-up shows, holds nothing back, and the audience is better for it. 

It’s clear from his very first words that the time from which he came and was formed—the civil rights era, a period of unrest, violence, and assassinations of high profile movement leaders—fueled the comedian’s work. Time is as much a character in the show as its two stars, Edwin Lee Gibson as Gregory and John Carlin in a host of roles, from cabbie to racist heckler. It’s an intimate show, with just the two men and time, and Arena’s Kreeger Theater proves well-suited for that intimacy. 

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The show moves back and forth between Gregory performing in the 1960s and Gregory in 2017, two very different men whose messages never waver. When he’s young, Gibson plays Gregory as the spry, smoking, drinking fun-lover. As an older man in 2017, he labors across the stage, plodding up and down the steps with a world-weary gait and speaking in gruff tones. At his core, he remains the same spirited funnyman who made comedy his tool for activism. 

At the heart of this 90-minute presentation is Dick Gregory’s racial comedy—the first of its kind by a black comedian, often scorching his own audience, which sometimes included white supremacists. Among the many sharp jokes in the show is a Gregory classic: Black people voted six or seven times for Kennedy to make up for all the times they couldn’t vote. Gibson is brilliant in the role of Gregory and showcases his comedic timing and dramatic chops in equal measure. 

The emotional moments of black pain and struggle are heavy and important, and Gibson forces you to feel their weight. One such moment occurs when Gregory discusses the death of his son and the racist troll who called him to gloat about it.

Turn Me Loose reminds those who may have forgotten and teaches new generations about Gregory’s comedic brilliance. He was a revolutionary who paved the way for those who followed him, including Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, and countless others. He was close friends with civil rights activist and icon Medgar Evers, who was killed by a white supremacist at his Jackson, Mississippi, home in 1963. Gregory reflects on that friendship during the show, describing how devastating the loss was and how he would’ve been right by Evers’ side and likely would have died with him if he hadn’t decided to fly home upon learning of the death of his son. Evers’ last words are said to have been “Sit me up! Turn me loose!”

Those words still ring true, from one fraught time to another. Turn Me Loose is a production that D.C., the city where Gregory died just over a year ago, can use. 

To Oct. 21 at 1101 6th St. SW. $66–$115. (202) 488-3300. arenastage.org.