Joe Morton, Dick Gregory and Black Santa

By Stacy Jenel Smith

March 10, 2015 3 min read

Joe Morton, Dick Gregory and Black Santa

When Joe Morton isn't busy playing his show stopping "Scandal" character of black ops mastermind/domineering patriarch Rowan "Poppa" Pope, the esteemed actor is getting ready to play groundbreaking comedian Dick Gregory in "Turn Me Loose," an off-Broadway play written by Gretchen Law and directed by John Gould Rubin.

The play has him "on the stage for an hour and 20 minutes by myself. We did three workshops and obviously refined the writing with each workshop," reports Morton. "It's a beautiful piece of work, and I think it could be very important piece. The conflict, basically, is watching this man who broke the color line on television in terms of being a comedian and sort of morph into becoming the activist he eventually became."

Part of Morton's preparation has been talking to the 82-year-old Gregory. He recalls their first hour and a half phone conversation in November 2013. Morton, who grew up the son of a U.S. Army officer entrusted with desegregating bases overseas — a task he likens to "A Soldier's Story" — found he and Gregory could relate.

"Dick Gregory is this fount of information. We talked about everything from some of his experiences when he was younger, as an activist, to things that I tried to relate to him that I understood the racial balance in this country."

One of the times that stood out for Morton, remembering his trailblazing dad: "When I was a kid, we were stationed in Massachusetts, and my father was trying to plan a Christmas surprise. His hobby was to be a painter. He was a quite gifted artist. And he was secretly painting a black Santa Claus." He goes on, "In seeing that picture, I understood that he was saying more to me than just 'There should be a black Santa Claus,' or 'That's how we see Santa Claus,' but that there is a bigger world out there, bigger emotions out there or bigger broad strokes of who we are as human beings, and if he was saying it simply by painting this black Santa Claus. I'll never forget it, and it was a lot about what Dick was saying about understanding how to be black in America."

Morton's father died in a Jeep accident when he was only 10 years old. "I think that if he had lived, I'm not even sure I would have become an actor," he says. "My bent would probably have been to follow in his footsteps, which, after he died I thought I would do for a little while."

Instead, the gifted actor landed at Hofstra University, studying drama — a choice that worked out well indeed for the entertainment world.

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