Two big stories are crashing around the tiny Westside Theatre in Hell’s Kitchen. One story, the major one, belongs to Dick Gregory, the groundbreaking comedian and civil-rights activist whose singular life is the reason for the terrific new Off-Broadway biography, “Turn Me Loose.”
But there is another journey brought here by this wrenching and smart drama, a virtual solo, subtitled without overstatement “A Play about Comic Genius.” Even when sold out, each performance can reach just 250 people and yet it has burst into the surprise smash of the spring season.
Theater world: meet Joe Morton. Sure, many now know him as Rowan Pope, the nefarious father of Olivia (Kerry Washington) in “Scandal,” a portrayal that earned Morton an Emmy in 2014. Or you know him from movies — for some of us as the soulful mute alien in “The Brother From Another Planet” (1984), for others from “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991).
But Morton, 68, began as one of the brightest lights on the New York stage, winning a 1974 Tony nomination and the Theatre World Award for auspicious newcomers as Walter Lee Younger in “Raisin,” the musical adaptation of “A Raisin in the Sun.” (And — who knew? — he sings.) Except for his 1968 Broadway debut as a member of the tribe in “Hair,” a brief 1998 replacement gig in “Art” and some random theater jobs in between, the theater lost him to big and little screens.
Thus, I doubt anyone anticipated Morton’s magnificent return to the stage in “Turn Me Loose,” which had its unassuming world premiere in mid-May with a script by Gretchen Law, hardly a household name, and direction by John Gould Rubin, a former artistic director of the LAByrinth Theater. But singer-songwriter John Legend obviously knew the project’s importance. He signed on as a lead producer, wrote a song for the play and pushes it to new audiences in frequent ads on TV.
“Dick Gregory has lived one of the most interesting lives of all time,” said Legend in an email. “His comedy, his activism, his participation in world-changing events . . . I couldn’t pass up the chance to help amplify that story for today’s audiences and to work with the great Joe Morton.”
Like most actors, Morton says he hasn’t read his reviews — which have been ecstatic. “I do know what people have been telling me,” he said in a recent upbeat phone interview. “So on that level, I guess I am very pleased.”
Producers have been sniffing around the project in the hopes of an extension or a move to a larger theater, even to Broadway. He says hopes “we can continue,” and would especially like the political play to be seen in Washington. “Lots of conversations have to do with my schedule. I have to go back to do ‘Scandal’ at some point and have other projects.”
Meanwhile, Gregory himself came to the opening and returned with family the next night. Asked if he participated in the production, Gregory, 83, wrote back via email a priceless wise and sardonic answer. “I let those who know how to produce a play do their job. The only requirement was that whomever plays me is Black.”
But Morton need not concern himself with Gregory’s reaction. “The feeling was near an out of body experience . . . ,” he said. The performance of Joe Morton was incredible. Couldn’t have picked a better actor.”
Surprisingly, given the complex and raw intimacy of the portrayal, the men have hardly interacted at all. “When I got the script, Dick and I spent about an hour and a half or two hours on the phone,” Morton reveals. “We talked about being black in America. We haven’t really had an opportunity to speak at length, but we keep saying we will.”
Morton got the script three years ago, did “a great deal of research,” watched Gregory’s routines on YouTube, read his 1964 biography. It’s provocatively titled the N-word, which the satirist dared explode throughout his career, probably to desensitize the now-radioactive word and reclaim its history. As we learn in the printed program, he enjoyed knowing that “Whenever you hear the word . . . you’ll know they’re advertising my book.”
In just 90 minutes, Law’s play takes Morton back and forth and around Gregory’s life as one of the first black comedians to take on racism for white audiences, from Chicago dives in 1963 to his breakthrough at the Playboy Club, from his marches alongside other civil rights leaders to his evolution into a vegan advocate for extreme healthy lifestyles. (Gregory is scheduled to appear at Caroline’s Comedy Club on June 4 and 5.)
Morton is gratified about the extraordinary diversity in the audiences. These include black people, white people who remember Gregory’s heyday and want to pass it onto their children, not to mention fans who come to see a favorite star from TV and find a vibrant, essential history they may not have understood in such a personal way.
“We are so involved in the present day that we push aside our history,” says the actor, who was born in Harlem, was partly raised in West Germany and Okinawa because of an intelligence-officer father and returned to study drama at Hofstra University.
“We forget how we got to a certain moment,” he said with passion and concern. “Without the movement, there would be no Civil Rights Act, no Voting Rights Act. They never would have happened without an enormous organized movement with a central core.”
Thus, when the script came to Morton, he knew “Come hell or high water, I was going to do this.” Still, it’s impossible not to wonder what took him so long to get back to the stage. The actor — who is twice divorced, has three grown children and lives with Christine Lietz, his companion-business partner — blames “life and paying the bills . . . I think theater is the strongest place to find what’s missing in entertainment. Unfortunately, it pays the least. I put two kids through college. Now I’m going to try to get back to the theater as often as I can.”