LOS ANGELES — As the sole daughter of comic legend Richard Pryor and Jewish astronomer Shelley Bonus, Rain Pryor straddled two worlds. Her paternal grandmother, Mama, ran a brothel in Peoria, Illinois. Her Bubbie resided in Beverly Hills.
“I’m black and Jewish, which means I’m proud, but yet I feel so guilty for it!” Pryor says in her solo show, “Fried Chicken and Latkes.”
The dynamic between these two points of identification are at the heart of the play, a makeover of Pryor’s previous cabaret act. It explores her formative years in the ’70s and ’80s as the child of what was then a much less common interracial and interfaith marriage.
The one-hour show opens February 16 at the Braid, the performance space of the Jewish Women’s Theater, in Santa Monica, California.
Although Pryor has revamped much of the production since its debut in 2001 at the Canon Theater in Beverly Hills, the acclaimed jazz and blues singer performs three songs on stage.
“Working with JWT is very important to me as an artist, working on content that deals with Jewish life and spirit. As I get older, I become more and more aware of my soul,” Pryor told The Times of Israel during rehearsals. “What I love about the show is that it brings together people of different races and cultures and it starts conversations about sameness.”
The six-week run is a limited engagement at the tail end of an experimental year of Pryor living in Los Angeles.
Upon the show’s close, this twice-divorced single mom, who began performing stand-up about eight years ago, plans to return to her home in Baltimore, where she moved after her father died. While married to her ex-husband Yale Partlow, she had a daughter, Lotus Marie, now 8, whom she named after Mama.
Rehearsing in glasses, a T-shirt, leggings and sneakers, with her hair pulled back, Pryor reveals many of the challenges she faced growing up. Her mother was only briefly wed to Pryor. His eight marriages — two with the same woman — included one that lasted just two weeks. Like her father, Pryor — whose trademark hair is usually, plainly put, big — goes at herself with hilarity.
‘For years, I walked around looking like a demon-possessed poodle!’
“For years, I walked around looking like a demon-possessed poodle!” she said in an early version of the show.
More provocative elements of the show deal with race relations, ethnic identity and class issues, all relevant to today’s social and political climate, Pryor says.
“I do talk about my mom in the early ’60s making me watch politically charged marches and protests. And here I am in the 2015 riots in Baltimore,” says the performer.
Her combination of skills makes for a compelling theater experience, even in rehearsal.
“She is one of the most talented, original voices in theater I’ve ever worked with,” says director and co-producer Eve Brandstein, who brought the project to JWT after seeing its earlier incarnation.
Brandstein met a young Pryor while working as a casting director for Norman Lear’s shows, including “One Day at a Time,” “Who’s the Boss” and “Different Strokes.”
“During that time, I met Rain, who was the biggest personality and sweetest girl. I watched her in school plays and local productions,” Brandstein says. “I’ve been following her career as she went from TV to stand-up to theater to cabaret to recording artist.”
As Pryor takes on the role of 10 characters, the audience becomes her confidants.
Pryor juggles it all: her mother with a New York accent; her Bubbie, now 95, suffering from dementia, who calls her “Rain Flower;” her African-American grandmother, Mama; even her famous father — who once tried to kill himself when she was 12 by lighting himself on fire, creating third degree burns across 90% of his body.
‘Heart is wrenching is when you deal with race and culture, and that’s funny, too’
She asked permission to imitate him while he was still alive. When he saw how authentic it was, his only request was, “Now, don’t f— it up!”
“Fried Chicken and Latkes” runs the gambit from hilarious to heart wrenching.
“When you can relate to something and it makes you laugh, that’s hilarious,” Pryor says. “And heart wrenching is when you deal with race and culture, and that’s funny, too.”
From opera singer to ‘Head of the Class’
Her parents met when Bonus was working as a go-go dancer. They were married for two-and-a-half years, from the end of 1967 to July 1969, just as Richard Pryor was cresting on his way to fame.
Though living primarily with her mother, Pryor grew up in showbusiness.
Her maternal grandfather, Herbert Bonis, (his daughter Shelley changed the spelling to Bonus) served as the manager for legendary performer Danny Kaye for 35 years.
Pryor, who has half siblings from her father’s other marriages, trained as an opera singer and acted in local shows. In her last two years of high school, she lived with her father and soon after graduating from high school at 18, she landed a role on ABC’s hit teen sitcom “Head of the Class” as a brainy trouble maker.
It paralleled her real life experience living with her mother and struggling to fit in as a black Jew. When she met with the writers, she portrayed a character she invented named TJ, who, she says, “hung with the wrong side but got put in the class with the freaks and geeks — the story of my life.”
Acting and writing have long been a creative outlet for Pryor. She appeared as Margaret in the 2016 feature film, “The Night Watchmen,” and in 2006, published “Jokes My Father Never Taught Me: Life, Love, and Loss with Richard Pryor” (HarperEntertainment). She is also at work on new material she shares on Facebook and Twitter.
Pryor remains close with her siblings and ex-husband, a Baltimore cop.
“We are all very tight,” she says. “We have a very great co-parenting relationship.”
With fiction mirroring fact, the show’s diversity is reflected in her family.
“We all come from different backgrounds, sexual orientations and that’s the world I want Lotus to grow up in,” she says. “The reason for ‘Fried Chicken and Latkes’ is to create art that is transformative.”
For JWT Artistic Director Ronda Spinak, the show’s co-producer, Pryor’s writing is a critical piece of the show’s success.
“Her story of growing up black and Jewish in Beverly Hills in a politically incorrect era speaks to us today, sadly, more profoundly than ever,” Spinak says. “Her heart and humanity transcend the color of ones skin or the God to whom one prays. As she shares her funny and poignant stories, and the characters in her life, we can’t help but yearn for a better world and be inspired to work towards creating one.”
Producers also hope the show will open up an audience that has never seen Pryor perform.
As Spinak explains, “When people of all religious identifications, cultural backgrounds and even race sit shoulder to shoulder and laugh and cry together, feel something emotional, we are reminded of our humanity and that which unites us rather than divides us.”
When asked about her own observance, Pryor described herself as a black Jew who lights Shabbat candles and observes the holidays and the yahrzeits of her father and grandfather. She identifies with both her Jewish side and with her father’s African mystic traditions.
“I think spirituality is a very private and individual experience,” she says. “And I think that combination with my Judaism makes me who I am.”