Beloved comedian and activist, Dick Gregory, has left a gaping hole in the African American diaspora since his death just a few months ago. Brought together to honor his work and to recognize the activism work being done in the Los Angeles community, The Wallis Center for Performing Arts hosted a powerful conversation. Held in the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, theater, “SOCIAL ACTIVISM AND THE ARTS:
LESSONS FROM THE LEGACY OF DICK GREGORY”, was a free panel conversation that felt more like a self-promoting event, rather than Dick Gregory driven. Panelists included thespian Joe Morton, journalist Tavis Smiley, dance studio owner Lula Washington, and street dance activist Shamell Bell. The event was moderated by author Tananarive Due, and from the opening statements to the last conversations, each panelists gave us a bit more insight about their lives, businesses and motivating factors that allowed them to become activists share their passion for activism.
“I’m honored by the spirit of Dick Gregory and remember what activism looking like in my mother,” remembers Tananarive. “She wore these dark sunglasses for most of my life because she has been tear-gassed in her 20s during a protest.” Each panelist, one-by- one, made opening statements, remembering what motivated them to become activists. “I’m the first high school graduate in my family. My family is from South Central, [California] and I never knew about USC until I graduated and it was right in my back yard. How I got there was through dance. That’s why I call myself a Dance activist.”
Dick Gregory was the subject of The Wallis’ most recent performance, “Turn Me Loose”, a new comedy drama about the life of Dick Gregory, starring Tony award winner and Scandal star Joe Morton, written by Gretchen Law and directed by John Gould Rubin. In association with John Legend’s Get Lifted Film Co, “Turn Me Loose” had a successful run at The Wallis from October 13-29th.
“…When I took this role-playing Dick Gregory, the first I asked for was his phone number. We ended up talking for hours over the phone, especially about our fathers,” remembers Joe Morton. “He didn’t like his father for leaving his family; my father chose the military over poverty. I grew up angry. Now I find myself becoming more and more like him; making the same choices that he made.”
Two of the panelists, Lula Washington and Shamell Bell, realized they both attended UCLA’s Dance program and both discovered their love for dance through seeing Alvin Ailey performances; an event that sparks their physical storytelling of Black stories. “I’m here because of dance …”, says Lula Washington. “We save souls through dance, we heal people through dance … that’s the power of art.”
Dick Gregory believed that art and activism went hand-in-hand. Throughout his entire life, he told the truth to audiences across continents that Black people had it hard here in America. He will especially be remembered for his poignant and strikingly truthful stand up comedy, and later, for going on hunger strikes to protest the Vietnam war and apartheid. “Dick Gregory found a way to put art and entertainment together,” said Joe Morton. “First, you’d laugh, then, you’d think. Sometimes the art draws you in and we hit you with the truth. I don’t think art can exist without that exchange.”
Tavis Smiley, who wrote Dick Gregory’s eulogy for Time Magazine, summed up the power of art and activism in his raising three questions for the audience to ponder, “If what the late great Paul Robeson said is true, that the artists are the gatekeepers of truth, what does it mean in this present moment in time? 2) What does it mean to be a citizen artist and what’s our role as citizen artists? And, 3) What happens to a society when Art and Entertainment gets blurred?