The actor discusses his portrayal of comedian and late civil rights activist Dick Gregory in the one-man play Turn Me Loose.
Decorated Actor Joe Morton
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Joe Morton is an Emmy-winning actor who has over 40 years of experience in television film and theater. He joins us to talk about the West Coast premier of “Turn Me Loose”, a play about activist and comic genius, Dick Gregory, now at The Wallis. Before our conversation, here now a montage from the original Off–Broadway production at the Westside Theater.
Tavis: Can I just tell you that one of the great joys of my life, as you know, was being in the audience watching you do this in New York.
Joe Morton: Thank you. It’s a great play. He was a great man and it’s my honor to sort of being able to sort of portray him onstage.
Tavis: Why Dick Gregory for you?
Morton: I think this play and that man talked about all the things that I want to talk about. It talks about the plight of the Black man in America, talks about civil rights, talks about the need for protest, talks about the hypocrisy of the American Constitution and democracy. These are all the things that I enjoy and want to talk about, and there they were.
Tavis: I was honored to have been asked by Time magazine to write the obit for him a few weeks ago when he passed away. I knew Dick well, but it was just so amazing for me in sitting to ponder what I wanted to write about him for Time, how timeless he really was.
What he had to say back then and what you do onstage can be situated in this moment. I was just blown away watching you in New York at the dialog and what Dick was saying in the 60s and 70s and how it feels so real.
Morton: We’re still faced with the same sort of problems. I mean, you know, this whole idea that the NFL players should not take a knee because that’s somehow a form of protestation that is not democratic or patriotic or whatever.
And all the things I’m hearing anyway are the same kind of things I think Dick heard when people were protesting in the 60s. I mean, there’s a line in the play, you know, where he talks about, you know, America just didn’t wake up one morning and give the Negro his rights.
You know, as long as we were out there fighting, they were pointing and saying, you know, “See how those [bleep] act? They want their rights, they should be put behind bars. Better yet, they should be hung by a tree till they die”, and we were. And I think that’s what gets me in the play. And that’s who Dick was. I mean, the terrible thing is that we’re still talking about it 40 years later.
Tavis: What was it that you learned about Dick in preparing and researching for this piece that most surprised you, that most moved you? I’m just trying to get a sense of what it was that was a takeaway for you about his legacy?
Morton: I think two things. Initially, it was I didn’t know that his young son, Richard, Jr., had died shortly after childbirth. And I wasn’t completely aware that he had given up so much, that Dick was making millions and millions of dollars in a short period of time that he just literally pushed aside and became an activist 24/7. I think that’s remarkable, remarkable.
Tavis: What was it about him that allowed him to do that, to walk away? Because that’s a tough thing to do, to walk away from those millions and dedicate his life to loving and serving Black people, I think, particularly, but all of humanity?
Morton: Again, two things. One, there’s a point at which he realized that just being a humorist, being a satirist, about racism and about politics was not enough. In the play, we do a story where he talks about an old man who speaks at a rally who, in the course of being part of that rally, was put in prison and, while he was in prison, his wife dies.
And in the play, Dick says, you know, “This man fought for my freedom, went to jail for me, lost his wife for me.” And I think it’s that kind of moment for Dick that made him understand that this is not something that you do as kind of a hobby or that you do as some sort of political outreach, that this is something that has to be done 24/7 and that’s there’s no other way to do it. That’s just who he was.
Tavis: I once had a conversation with Dick. I’ll never forget as long as I live. We were over dinner, as a matter of fact, sitting and talking, Joe. I was talking about a particular person who I regarded as one of the freest Black men that ever lived. Dick said, “That [bleep] ain’t got nothin’ on John Brown.” [laugh] I said, “What?”
He said, “John Brown is the freest Black or white man that ever lived” and he went into his whole dissertation about how and why he felt that John Brown — I knew where he was going. But to sit and listen to him give me this, again, dissertation about why John Brown was the top of his list when it came to freedom was fascinating to hear.
I raise that only because, again, I wrote in this Time magazine piece that Dick was so courageous. I talk about the times that he literally, as you well know, would go straight from a fresh narrow jail cell right to the stage. A number of times, he got arrested, came out of jail, went right to the stage and he would kill it.
The question I want to ask you is what was it about his humor that even in that very difficult period of segregation and Jim Crow and Jane Crow that he had this capacity to make both people, white and Black, laugh at the same joke?
Morton: I think because he knew how to construct a joke that made racism absurd, like that joke with the blonde waitress, you know. “I want a cheeseburger, please?” “We don’t serve colored people.” “Well, I don’t eat colored people.” Suddenly, the absurdity of that becomes very clear.
And then on top of it in that same joke, because I think a lot of people have heard it, he talks about being confronted by members of the KKK, telling them that — because he orders a big whole chicken that he has fried — and they tell him, “Whatever you do to that chicken, we’re gonna do to you.”
So the joke ends with him picking up that chicken and kissing it and he says, “Now I kissed it right on its [bleep].” [laugh] Suddenly, again, you’ve got this absurdity about the ridiculousness of racism. And I think that’s why he got over.
I think, intentionally, he was talking to white audiences first because we knew the story. But then what happened was is everyone could sit in his audience and understand how crazy this whole thing was, that you have to rationalize your way through this nonsense.
Tavis: Dick Gregory achieved that ultimate status of not just being respected, admired, revered, but he was beloved by Black people. Why is that?
Morton: Again, he was selfless. It wasn’t about whether he was right or wrong. I mean, I say that knowing Dick. But it was about the truth, so the truth from his point of view was simply that and you couldn’t deny it. I mean, I went to his memorial and, sitting a row away from me, was Louis Farrakhan and up onstage was Attallah Shabazz.
For those two people to be in the same room at the same time talking about their love — that just said it all to me. I just thought that’s who he was. He brought people from completely diametric oppositions together to say we need to talk about this or we need to deal with this or here’s an issue that we have to grapple with. And that’s who he was.
Tavis: The night that I came to see you just kill this in New York happened to be a night where you had a talk-back with the audience when the show ended. As you have these talk-backs, what are you hearing from people in conversation immediately after watching this onstage?
Morton: I think the majority of those audiences were young, so they were brought there by their parents. They didn’t really know who Dick Gregory was. They were now going to run out and buy the books and see if they could find out from their parents who he was, and that was a majority of it.
You know, a lot of praise, but mostly it was about who is this guy and how come we didn’t know much more about him before now? That’s really what it was about most of the time.
Tavis: You said something earlier that I don’t want to lose sight of. I heard it loud and clear and want to just circle back to it. That is that play allows you to say things, to express things that you have longed to say and to express.
I’ve always had high regard and respect for you beyond just your great thespian capabilities because you are a humanist and you situate yourself in the world that you live. How difficult has it been being an artist in this business and not always having the material that you’ve looked for or wanted for to express things that are inside of you?
Morton: When I first started, I was always constantly frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t find material that talked about these kinds of things and began to complain about it with my agents. I was always told, “Well, then you go off and write something.” Yeah, but I’m the actor [laugh]. Somebody else is supposed to write this stuff.
And I think that was the lesson is that what I learned was you have to go out and look for it. We say it in the play, you know. He says, “I have a belief that information is salvation” and that, to me, is the key.
I then had to go out and, as I say, stir the pot. Find out what stories need to be told. How can I find a way to tell the story, whether it’s doing a book on tape or whether it’s doing a television show or a movie? How can I bring this to the fore in some way, shape or form? And that’s what it’s been like.
Tavis: I’m gonna take that lead, that segue, TV and movie. TV [laugh]. For all your fans on “Scandal”, last season of “Scandal”, I assume you’ve enjoyed this ride.
Morton: This has been great. To play Eli/Rowan has been just amazing. To work for Shonda Rhimes is heaven. It’s been amazing.
Tavis: So that’s TV. And film, “Justice League” [laugh]. You know how to pick the spots, man. You know how to pick your spots. This “Justice League” thing is gonna be huge.
Morton: It’s gonna be huge. It’s one of those things kind of like “Scandal” in a way, just sort of fell in my lap. I was driving down the street and my manager called me up and he said, “Listen, we got somebody. Zack Snyder wants to talk to you.” I said, “What?” Pulled over and Zack Snyder was on the phone and he offered me the gig.
And, again, at first it was, you know, kind of like doing “Terminator 2”. Only Black male character in the piece of my age. As it turns out, it’s Cyborg, so it’s me and Ray who plays Cyborg. And then when I met Ray, we talked about the fact that in some ways because the cyborg is played by a young Black man, it is a conversation about the other.
Because Cyborg is not like the other heroes. He can’t hide behind an alias. He is just what he is and he’s like that all the time. So, again, it was a situation where even though it was an action adventure movie, it had some grounding in real life, something that I could actually hold onto.
Tavis: Joe Morton has always been to me one of the finest actors of his generation and you can see him in any number of things right now. As you just heard us say, the last season of “Scandal”, which is gonna be huge, “Justice League” which is gonna be huger [laugh] and “Turn Me Loose” which is gonna be very well received at The Wallis here in Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, to be exact, but who’s counting streets?
Morton: And we start October 13 and we run through November 12. Thursday through Sunday.
Tavis: Yeah, and Dick’s birthday is…
Morton: The 12th, that’s right.
Tavis: The 12th. My, how’s that for timing?
Morton: Well, we were supposed to do a thing at the theater where we were gonna celebrate his birthday the day before we opened. Maybe we still will.
Tavis: His spirit will be in the place, that’s for sure.
Morton: You know, the other thing is that, you know, people always ask me, “Was it a great responsibility to play a man who was already still alive?” Yes, it was, and now it feels an even greater responsibility to play someone who has passed.
Tavis: He did see you onstage?
Morton: He did. He…
Tavis: And he liked it?
Morton: He came twice. This is one of my favorite stories.
Tavis: All right, tell me.
Morton: He came twice and the second time he came, there is a moment in the play where we talked about the loss of his son. Apparently, he looked very lovingly at Lil, his wife, and took her hand and she turned to him and said, “What you holding my hand for? That’s Dick Gregory up there.” [laugh]
Tavis: And there you have it. “Turn Me Loose” at The Wallis starring one Joe Morton. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
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