Satire

The Tongue Is a Mighty Sword

Move over, James Brown. It’s time to add Joe Morton and Dick Gregory's names to the pantheon of hardest-working men in show business. In Turn Me Loose, written by Gretchen Law and directed by John Gould Rubin, Morton gives a tour de force performance as Gregory, the tireless civil rights activist and stand up comic known for his acerbic social satire on race and American politics.

Morton, of the hit TV show Scandal, adeptly captures both the younger and the older Gregory as the play moves back and forth in time. As a comedian, Gregory eloquently holds a mirror up to the contradictions in American society. Although he believes economics are at the root of many problems in society, he contends that “poverty is not the worst disease on earth. Racism is.”

Born in 1932, in St. Louis, Gregory says he had “black assets: fast feet, and a fast tongue.” He was athletic and outspoken, and when he was given a three-year contract at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club in Chicago in 1961, he was catapulted into another realm as an entertainer, not as a “shuffling minstrel, but as a 28-year-old star.” However, he often stepped down from comedy to take up the cause of the 1960s civil rights movement and march side by side with Medgar Evers.

Morton captures the conflict between being a performer and being an activist that caused Gregory to take pause at moments in his life. In a chilling moment, the young activist gets a bad feeling that he can’t shake before heading back down South to join Evers. But suddenly his son dies and he returns North to join his wife. Only two weeks later, Evers is assassinated; Gregory believes his personal tragedy spared his life. The dangers of activism and being a black man in the South in the ’60s were never more apparent. He realizes that the "racist system is nothing but a shadow. You got to dive through—every day could be your last.” He also realizes that bigotry is like the barb of an arrow piercing the skin. Gregory returns to comedy and aims, not so much to extract the arrowhead from the sides of American racists, but to shake them with enough laughter that it will fall out.

Morton’s voice has a deep timbre, and he has amazing reserve and control over both his voice and physicality. Often, while the tempo and volume rise, his body is restrained and still. Near the finale, sweat pours down his face, and instead of taking the handkerchief, as he does at times throughout the play, he forges through what he has to say: the power of his words is amplified by the apoplectic state of his face.

The raw immediacy of Morton’s performance, coupled with the power of Gregory’s message, incites some members of the audience to murmur “Mmm-hmmm” and “Yeah,” as if they are receiving a message from the pulpit rather than the stage. Also helping tell the story in a variety of roles is John Carlin; among other things he plays a bumbling mediator at a loss for words when Gregory delivers an acerbic diagnosis of the state of economics and its effect on all that ails American society.

It takes tremendous courage and intelligence to design and deliver the kind of comedy Gregory does. At 83, he's still going strong. Because of his work with the civil rights movement, and the way in which he has relentlessly, with humor, grace and a tongue like a sword, dissected the contradictions about race in America, the conversation itself has since taken a few twists and turns. For instance, Vin Diesel, who rose to stardom in The Fast and Furious films, declines to accept any racial pigeonhole. Rather, says one observer, Diesel presents himself as “a multiethnic Everyman.” The actor’s insistence on identifying himself as a human being, rather than by race, is an important step. As Turn Me Loose makes plain, it’s one that Dick Gregory has worked tirelessly for.

Turn Me Loose plays at the Westside Theatre (407 West 43rd St.) through July 3. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday, at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and at 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $79 and may be purchased by calling (212) 239-6200 or visiting www.turnmelooseplay.com.


 
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Boy? Girl? Or Both?

Darren and Janet are the typical white couple, living typical middle-class lives, and waiting for their baby to arrive. Will it be a girl? Will it be a boy? What the couple was not expecting was for the baby to be, well, both.  

Explaining gender and sex with an interesting twist, Happily After Ever is a pleasant way to begin a conversation about a hot-button issue. The play begins with Darren (Jeffrey Brian Adams) and Janet (Molly-Ann Nordin) meeting for the first time at a bus stop. “It’s so endearing and not at all coincidental that we happen to be two such attractive, single people sitting next to each other and waiting for a bus that won’t come,” Janet says as the two sit on a bus bench in the rain. And as quickly as their conversation started, the two become married, and suddenly Janet is pregnant—all  within about 10 minutes. This lighthearted, rom-com scenario of falling in love at first sight quickly changes when the couple finds out that their baby is intersex. The happy-go-lucky couple is then stuck with the tough decision—what sex should the baby be? 

The intersex baby becomes the “odd cookie out” in this cookie-cutter world, leaving Darren and Janet to figure out how to balance their love for their new bundle of joy with their fear of raising a child that is not like everyone else. For the rest of the play, the audience sees into the couple’s home and listens in on their conversations around what sex their baby should be. In addition to their baby’s sex, the couple comments on the way they act and how it is heavily influenced on their gender. With satirical humor drenched in almost every line, the conversations between the couple are upbeat and often produce chuckles.

To add pressure to these new parents, their neighbors, Jerry (Brennan Lowery) and Dharma (Marlon Meikle), come over every week for game night. This odd couple are the typical judgmental neighbors. They add to the satirical humor and outwardly judge themselves and their neighbors’ lives. Although they are jealous that the younger couple have a baby, their dissatisfaction of a baby being more than one sex increases the fear in Darren and Janet’s already distraught minds. Even their talking dog Tommy (Jim Anderson) can smell the sadness on Janet.

In a desperate need to go back to normal, the couple tries different ways to cope with their situation. They even try to ignore their infant:

Darren: I can’t think, Janet. It’s like there’s a noise that won’t go away…. It’s almost like…
Janet: A baby.
Darren: Not quite. Although now that you mention it…
Janet: It’s the baby, Darren.
Darren: Right. The baby.

Obviously this tactic does not work. Their distress escalates to a point where by the end of the play, Darren and Janet have to choose the baby’s sex. Will they choose a boy? Will they choose a girl? Or will they choose to leave the baby as it is and be both?

Sitting in an intimate theater, the audience will get a chance to laugh at the absurdity of the way gender is perceived through the eyes of two typical newlyweds with an atypical child. But in focusing on white middle-class adults, Zlatos steers away from delving into the experience of intersex people. Instead, she focuses the humor on the people who are not intersex. 

Costume designer Stephanie Levin helps to amplify these gender perceptions in costumes that reflect both femininity and masculinity. With a cute polka-dot dress for Janet and a fitted shirt and trousers for Darren, the couple is picture-perfect for any Friday night game night with the neighbors. To add to the contrast of female and male on stage, set designer Rebecca Lord-Surratt paints the stage with baby blue walls and hot pink floors, diagonally divided by a suburban green lawn. The set pieces are great for quick transitions and easily transform to the appropriate piece furniture during each scene, while the lights designed by Megan Dallas Estes give the set a crisp, clean sitcom feel. They fit perfectly in this quirky, perky look at gender issues.

Director Sherri Eden keeps up the quickly paced dialogue. The chemistry between Janet and Darren is a little more believable than the chemistry between Dharma and Jerry—however, both fall a bit flat. Their relationships lack a passion and connection with each other that makes their interactions with their significant others less interesting and exciting to watch. However, the overall performances of the actors are engaging and keep the audience giggling throughout.  

Happily After Ever is an enjoyable show with easy and lighthearted jokes. Shining light on the daily life of a struggling couple, their neighbors, and a talking dog helps the audience become aware how gender and sex heavily influence the way people think and act.

Happily After Ever runs until April 16 at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th St. between Park and Madison avenues) in Manhattan. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and at 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 3:30 pm. on Sundays. Tickets are $18. To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or go to www.59e59.org.

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