Ayanna Gregory, daughter of comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, embraced her father on stage at the Montgomery College Cultural Arts Center in downtown Silver Spring on Sept. 28 after giving a stunning performance in her highly acclaimed play, “Daughter of the Struggle.”
“This play is an ode to my father,” said Gregory. “It’s my way of letting him know, ‘I know who you are now.’”
Gregory stressed to the audience how important these stories were to her and how important it is for everyone to share their stories with younger generations. “Turn off the TV. You be the movie. You be the storyteller,” she said.
Told through a series of recollections and songs, Gregory’s one-woman play reminiscences about her life as one of 10 children growing up with Dick Gregory as her father. “It was like an adventure, you never knew what would happen next,” said Gregory, with a laugh.
“We also had so many rules in my house. We were not allowed to eat meat, white bread or sugar. We were not allowed to pierce our ears, perm our hair, watch TV, or eat and drink at the same time, ” recalls Gregory. “There were times when we [kids] were angry. There were seven girls and three boys and we didn’t always understand at the time.”
She chuckled at remembering how she and her siblings would sneak chicken and Now-And-Later’s and crowd in front of a small TV to catch a few programs when her father was away. “Imagine 10 kids all trying to watch three channels on a four-inch, black-and-white TV.”
As the youngest daughter of the family, Gregory said she didn’t understand at the time who her father truly was.
“[My father] was away a lot,” said Gregory. “I was embarrassed to say I didn’t know who he was. I learned through books and stories.” Through these stories, Gregory would learn how, as a comedian, her father paved the way for men like Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, and Eddie Murphy and, as a civil rights activist, how he helped save and change lives forever.
On stage, Gregory transformed from character to character, retelling the stories she had heard growing up. She told of how her older sisters, ages three and five, were thrown into a paddy wagon after marching with their mother. She told stories of how her father marched for freedom in Mississippi, how he helped others pay for medical school, how he stood up to police brutality during the sixties in the Deep South, and how he emphasized the importance of health and a good diet for longevity.
She said she learned through film of police-protester clashes at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago about the real dangers that surrounded her family. She shared stories of how her family’s phone lines where tapped and about the frequent death threats her father received.
“I never knew how dangerous life was then,” said Gregory.