Joe Morton on the selflessness of Dick Gregory in off-Broadway’s Turn Me Loose and the selfishness of Rowan Pope on Scandal

joe-morton

Joe Morton just can’t stay away from the theatre.

It’s been nearly two decades since the Emmy Award winner appeared on Broadway, but Morton is back off-Broadway this summer in the new play Turn Me Loose, produced and featuring an original song by John Legend.

Morton plays 1960s comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory in the one-man play. From entertaining stand-up audiences to fighting for civil rights alongside Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers, Gregory used his talents to focus attention toward bigotry. Morton’s performance is brilliant, weaving seamlessly between comedic and dramatic scenes.

Morton is perhaps best known to television audiences as Rowan Pope, Kerry Washington’s terrifying and controlling father on Scandal. Although the personas of Rowan Pope and Dick Gregory are vastly different in many ways, they are similar in that both roles delve into political discourse and issues of race. The wildly popular ABC drama, which finished up its fifth season in May, was recently announced to be renewed for season six.

Morton caught up with Stage Door Dish to discuss transitioning back to theatre during Scandal‘s hiatus and the underlying political themes in his current work.

Dick Gregory is such an important person in political history and activism as well as a brilliant comedian. How familiar were you with his work before joining this project?

I knew him as a comedian, I knew him as an activist, I was aware of the Bahamian diet and all those kinds of things, so it was a matter of doing deeper research in terms of watching him on YouTube and listening to a lot of his material, some of which I was familiar with, some of which I was not. It was a wonderful journey in researching Dick Gregory.

How long have you been with this production?

About two and a half to three years. We were doing workshops and staged readings in New York, we did one in California, we did one at Vassar.

Because he’s involved with the project and he’s been supporting it, how is it having a relationship with the person you’re playing on stage?

What he decided to do, as different drafts were put together, he had them sent to him to read. Even after a while, he gave them to his kids to read. His point of view was as long as there wasn’t anything stupid or out of the ordinary in terms of who he is and what’s he’s done, everything was fine. He didn’t really see the play or interact with anyone until we opened on the 19th. Six years ago, he had a very long luncheon with the writer and director, and that’s about the most he actually got involved.

What’s been the most rewarding part of being involved with this show?

Watching people react to his words, watching people respond to the humor, to understand what he’s talking about when he’s talking about corporate greed, income disparity, racism in general. That’s what makes the play important. It is, unfortunately, relevant to today, even though the words he spoke, in many cases throughout the play, he spoke 30 or 40 years ago.

John Legend is actually part of the team as well. What’s it like to work with him outside of his norm of being known as a recording artist?

He’s terrific. He’s very much supporting the play, he gave us a song that plays at the end of the piece. He’s been enormously supportive, it’s been terrific.

You made your Broadway debut in Hair many years ago. Why do you keep coming back to the theatre?

It’s an art form that is direct. In TV and film, it’s an audience watching a screen, and other than tweeting live, as we do with Scandal, there’s no real interaction with the audience. Tweeting live is the closest we get.

Number one, on stage there is no take two. You can’t stop and say, ‘Oh, I messed that work, I’ll go back and redo it.’ You just have to plow through the play. Number two, there is an immediate response from the audience as you’re doing it, which is glorifying. In this case, it actually buoys me through the piece. Three, for an actor, it is essential if you can do a character on stage for any length of time and, keep that character fresh and alive eight times a week, then you’ve learned your prayer.

On screen, you’re playing a character who poses challenging conversations of racism and politics, and now you’re doing essentially the same thing on stage. Is that something you look for in a project?

Politically, it is something I’m drawn to. The difference between Rowan and Dick Gregory is that everything Rowan does is something that will satisfy him personally and satisfy what he believes his daughter needs, so it’s kind of a selfish motivation. With Dick Gregory, what he is expounding on and offering to an audience is something that he hopes they will take home and grow from, so it’s the opposite; it’s selfless.

It’s so interesting, especially in this Broadway season, when there’s so much diversity versus last year at the Oscars with #OscarsSoWhite. Can you speak to that, having been on stage and screen recently?

Theatre has always been more diverse than film or television. I think film and television, because there is lots and lots of money involved and there is a star system involved and it is corporate, there are images that are being sought after in those places- other than, of course, Shondaland- that don’t necessarily reflect all of the world that surrounds it. In theatre, especially in New York, I don’t know that you could get away with that.

Theatre has struggled here. A Raisin in the Sun, when it was first done, was one of the newer plays about black lives on Broadway, but that was in the 50s. There again is the difference. In the 50s, there was very little in terms of black lives on TV, unless it was maybe a comedy, but then again there were only four or five channels back then. The world that theatre works through and works in is more artistic, more challenging, and therefore more required that it be diverse because of the kinds of themes and ideas that theatre seems to stretch toward.

It’s interesting that you’re playing a comedian now after playing such a dark, villainous role on television. What’s the transition like for you as an actor? 

The biggest challenge was to learn how to be a stand-up comedian. My biggest fear going into this was that I wasn’t sure if I could accomplish that or not. In terms of the contrast between Rowan and Dick Gregory, it is that this play is so selfless. This play is so much about trying to get the audience to hear something that Dick really wants them to hear and understand and take home and grow from. That seems to be more the point. It’s not whether it’s a villain or a good guy, one really has nothing to do with the other. When I went out to California a few years ago, I was actually looking to play a very smart bad guy because I had spent most of my career playing good guys. I was now purposely looking for something different to do. When this play came along, it was almost impossible to say no because of what was being talked about.

Why would you say Turn Me Loose is so important for today’s audiences?

Again, it’s because of the politics and what is trying to be extended towards the audience: the idea of corporate greed, the idea of racism. Someone told me that in Charles Isherwood’s review of the play, the first line is something like, ‘If there was no longer racism in this country, these jokes would not land.’ That’s fortunate for the production and unfortunate for the country. That’s what is important about the play. We as a nation tend to not want to talk about racism. We tend to want to sweep it under the rug, and now we have someone like Donald Trump, who is holding up racism in his own way as something to be proud of. That’s what makes this play relevant. A friend of mine is married to someone who lived in Poland when he was a child, when Russia was the Communist dark force in Poland. He said that even though he hasn’t experienced American racism, when watched the play he could certainly empathize with what was going on, and it made him tear up just as much just remembering what he went through as a child dealing with Russians. That’s how far reaching the play is.

I love that you brought up Donald Trump because it’s been so genius of Shonda to create Hollis Doyle this season on Scandal as the television version of him. You said in your Emmy acceptance speech that she’s a genius, but what’s it like to work with her on Scandal and the character of Rowan?

She is amazing. First of all, what’s really interesting about Shonda is that she writes all of this and then lets us do what we do with it. She’s not a dominating force, the only thing she requires is that we speak every word and there’s no real improv going on. That’s the only limitation, which is really no limitation at all, given the strength and the breadth of the material. To work with her is a joy because you’re going to get wonderful material and because there is no interference from her or any of the other producers or directors. This company of actors are basically all theatre actors as well, so we all share a common language, a common verbiage, a common approach to the piece, which Shonda completely recognizes. This is melodrama, and you need actors who know how to temper that so it doesn’t become a soap opera.

Norm Lewis, who you spent a lot of time with in the last few episodes, is especially prominent on Broadway. Did you talk about the play at all?

Yes, we did. As a matter of fact, he came to the opening night. Norm has been around in the theatre for a long time. Everyone on that list in Scandal are theatre actors. It’s just terrific. Norm and I have lots of friends in common, so we could talk about this piece. He was very much looking forward to seeing it. The conversation between he and I was about things he has done with Audra [McDonald] and things I was about to do with Dick Gregory.

This is a totally silly question but I have been seeing the theories pop up online lately. Have you heard the fan buzz about making a musical version of Scandal? Would you be interested in that?

I have no idea what that would be, since this is an episodic show. I guess the only way to approach it would be a multifaceted play, so maybe you would watch the cast deal with going from a table read, through the process of recording whatever that episode was and somehow get a view of their relationships with one another, their world outside of Scandal. I don’t know. I have no idea what that would be.

Rowan is so iconic. He’s such an experience to watch that when I got this interview, I thought, ‘I know he’s not Rowan, but I’m a little bit frightened of him’… Is that something you’re used to hearing?

Yes, absolutely. Several months ago, we went up to Williamstown Theatre Festival and they have a cabaret up there. A woman walked up to me and said, ‘When you first walked in, I hated you, then I realized I don’t even know you.’ She came up and said hello and realized I’m not Rowan off-camera. I’m a completely different person, but that’s what I hear a lot.

What do you enjoy most about him?

All things are possible with Rowan. He inevitably tells everyone exactly what’s going to happen, no one believes him, and he goes ahead and does it anyway in his own way. He is a master chessman of people’s lives and situations and getting people to do things even though they don’t realize that he’s the one manipulating them. He’s an incredible, complicated, loving character to play.

That’s interesting that you describe him as loving.

I think he loves his daughter- no pun intended- to death. He will do everything and anything he believes is necessary to make sure that she’s protected and that she advances in the ways that he believes she should advance. In that way, he is the perfect father. He is not perfect in the way he goes about things in that it’s dark and murderous, but I do believe all of it is about making sure his daughter is safe and successful.

What would you hope for Rowan in the coming season?

I get this kind of question a lot, and my stock answer is, ‘No matter what I could come up with, Shonda is going to come up with something a thousand times better.’ We don’t really know what’s going to happen. Just like in the real world, we’re in the middle of this election cycle. We’ve seen so far that he’s manipulated the situation so that Bellamy [Young]’s character and Scott [Foley]’s character are now up for President and Vice President of the United States, so we’ll see where that goes from there. I can’t imagine that he’s gone this far to put those two characters together to run for the highest office in the land and won’t continue to do the kind of things that he does to make that happen, mostly because his daughter is involved.

What would you say to your Scandal fans to encourage them to see Turn Me Loose this summer?

It’s always interesting to see an actor, who you believe you know and believe you understand the kind of work they do, create something completely different. That’s always fascinating. Coming to see our play is an education. A lot of people who see the play have written on Twitter or send emails that they go home and do their own research on Dick Gregory. It is an ongoing education on all kinds of levels. Also, the play is very, very funny in many cases. That’s another reason, to come laugh with us.

You’ve had such a great career but is there anything you’ve carried with you over the years?

The biggest lesson I’ve learned over all these years is that longevity is the key. Staying in and alive within this business is essential so that you can move forward. I think the way that happens is that actors or artists in general need to define who they are as an artist. The tendency for many young actors is to just throw a bunch of things against the wall and see what sticks, as opposed to setting out direction for themselves, knowing what kind of work they’re interested in doing, not just anything and everything. All those things culminate in a successful career. If you are persistent, clear, and direct, then it’s a long climb but you eventually begin put together a career.

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About Samantha S.

"I found the theatre and I found my home.” ― Audra McDonald

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