Emmy winner Joe Morton has spent decades making an indelible mark on buzzworthy entertainment. From films like “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and “What Lies Beneath,” to TV shows like “Eureka” and, currently, “Scandal,” he has been the consummate scene-stealer. Now, he’s taking to the stage in Turn Me Loose, the new play about comedian Dick Gregory, the first black stand-up to make white audiences laugh at the absurdity of bigotry.
“Why wouldn’t I do Turn Me Loose?” Morton says of what drew him to playing the part of the man who stood alongside Civil Rights leaders and broke ground as he lampooned racism. “It’s about Dick Gregory the comedian, the actor, the friend to Martin Luther King Jr., and it’s about his ability to take racism and turn it to humor in front of audiences.”
After spending more than 40 years working in theatre, film and TV, Morton was presented with a challenge he’d never encountered before: Learning Gregory’s specific comedic timing.
“Dick Gregory is a stand-up comedian and I’ve never done any of that before. I had to learn his delivery in that respect, but I also play him as a young man and a much older man. It’s also a 50 page play where I do most of the talking, so that’s a challenge.”
Morton is no stranger to being challenged as an actor, especially working on the ABC mega-hit “Scandal” each week.
“With ‘Scandal,’ we are a part of this beautiful process where no one knows script-to-script what will happen with the characters until the table read,” he says. “For my character, especially the last few seasons, there have been new facets and changes to him that are always surprising.”
But taking the stage in Turn Me Loose is more than just a way to challenge himself as an actor. Morton understands the importance and necessity of stories like Gregory’s being told.
“I think show business is looking at black life in terms of monuments: Jackie Robinson, Ray Charles and now Dick Gregory. People within the arts are talking about the importance of these people to history. The beautiful thing about Dick Gregory is that what we talk about in this play was said 20-30 years ago but it is still boiling today. This isn’t a history play, it’s about right now. How prescient he was. Even when it comes to diet, he was saying no to sugar and eggs all those years ago and it’s being said today as well. It’s a testament to how far reaching this man’s mind is.”
Turn Me Loose opens on May 19th at the Westside Theatre in New York City.
Interview by Ryan Brinson
Header: Promotional photo of Joe Morton as Dick Gregory in TURN ME LOOSE by Jim Cox.