This man’s autobiography, published when he was just 31, sold more than a million copies. Robert F. Kennedy, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Hugh Hefner all relied on him. In 1968, he ran for president.
The name Dick Gregory was near-ubiquitous during the tumultuous 1960s. In subsequent decades, however, that name has drifted toward the fringes.
Now a new play based on Gregory’s life, starring Joe Morton of “Scandal” and produced by the singer John Legend, is poised to restore the civil rights-era comedian and activist to prominence.
Opening Thursday at the Westside Theatre in New York City, “Turn Me Loose” — the title comes from the last words spoken by Gregory’s friend Medgar Evers — features Morton in a demanding one-man role. The show toggles between Gregory’s rise as a socially conscious comedian in the early years of the civil rights movement and the present day, when his lifelong calls for justice remain all too relevant.
In his autobiography, provocatively titled the N-word, Gregory set the tone for his barbed, sardonic humor.
“I never learned hate at home, or shame,” he wrote. “I had to go to school for that.”
“It’s funny how good the jokes are still,” says Legend, on the phone from Los Angeles with his producing partner, Mike Jackson. “They still land.” Given the current debates over racial profiling and the legacy of the first black president, Legend says, “it sounds like he’s aware of what’s happening now even though they were written so long ago.”
Though he’s still doing comedy, it has been anything but fun and games for Gregory, who has kept a home for more than half his life in Plymouth. A stand-up sensation in the early ’60s, when he was featured in Time and Newsweek after a breakthrough at Hefner’s Playboy Club in Chicago, Gregory has devoted much of his life to activism. And not just for the rights of African-Americans. In the 1970s he marched on Washington with leaders of the women’s movement; in 1980, he undertook a long hunger strike on behalf of the hostages at the US Embassy in Iran.
“My wife went to jail in Selma when she was nine months’ pregnant,” says Gregory, speaking from Washington, D.C., where he has an apartment. “It’s not about us. It’s bigger than us.”
He’s always been outspoken. On the dedication page of his first book, he assured his late mother that anyone using the forbidden title word was just advertising the book.
Over the years Gregory has questioned official accounts of some of the most distressing events in the country’s recent history, including 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombings. His running mate for his third-party presidential candidacy in 1968, Mark Lane, was the author of “Rush to Judgment,” a best-selling critique of the Warren Commission’s report on the assassination of President Kennedy. (Lane died earlier this month at age 89.)
Gregory, who is 85, is a news junkie who claims to spend hundreds of dollars on newspapers and magazines each month.
“The amount of information he seems to be able to carry in his head is unbelievable,” says Morton.
When Gregory was given a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame last year, he answered his own question — “What took you so long?” — by acknowledging that his opinions have not exactly made him popular with those in power, whether in the government or the entertainment industry.
“I’ve been a bad boy,” he said, not quite joking.
“I believe he knows the ways in which he has not been honored by his own peers,” says his daughter Ayanna Gregory, 44. She thinks it’s a shame her father has not received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, the prestigious honor awarded annually since 1998 by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
“You can count on one hand those living civil rights icons,” she says. “Most of them have been honored in the highest ways possible, but he’s been bypassed. He’s a truth-teller. He could never be bought. In many environments he’s considered dangerous because of his tongue.”
Ayanna is the only one of Gregory’s 10 children to follow him into show business. A singer and actress, she created a one-woman show called “Daughter of the Struggle.”
“Growing up, my father was like a household name,” she recalls. While Gregory was out on the road, his wife, Lil, raised the children in Plymouth, on the 400-acre farm they bought, sight unseen, when they decided to leave the big-city pollution of Chicago.
Today, Ayanna understands her father’s frequent absence from her childhood in ways she could not comprehend at the time. “He did it all in the name of freedom and healing,” she says. “The spirit of everything he gave up is like fire in me.”
Life wasn’t always easy for Ayanna, though. One time when she was a schoolgirl, her father, who became a noted nutrition advocate in middle age, ordered all meat and dairy products out of the house. He’d also throw out the kids’ toys after consulting with his friend Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate.
“We were not quite fond of all the things we couldn’t do,” Ayanna recalls. It was difficult enough growing up black in a predominantly white community, she says, without the added stigma of forced vegetarianism or toylessness.
“His mind was moving at the speed of light.”
Playwright Gretchen Law, who lives in Guilford, Conn., says the bravery of Gregory and other civil rights leaders helped her cope with the turmoil of her own youth.
“His humor just cut through everything,” she says. “He was a mouthpiece for the craziness of an entire era.”
Law knows her subject, having written an earlier, unproduced script called “Al Sharpton for President,” which included a character modeled on Gregory. He had nothing to do with the new play other than granting permission. (His one condition: Don’t insult the movement. “Other than that, go for it.”) Law’s trying not to concern herself with her subject’s reaction to the play when he attends on opening night.
“I don’t try to predict how Dick Gregory is going to respond to anything,” she says. “He’s such a unique human being. I trust that he’ll see it was done in the right spirit.”
If the show does well — so far, every preview has earned a standing ovation, according to Morton — Legend and Jackson hope to move it to Broadway, and potentially develop a feature film from it.
Gregory says he has never used comedy to try to change people’s minds. That’s what he marches for.
“I never put the two together,” he insists. If that’s the case, the team behind “Turn Me Loose” is hoping to do it for him.James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.