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June 15, 2015
Interview: Rain Pryor on Her One-Woman Show “Fried Chicken & Latkes”
Photo credit: Christine Jean Chambers
Photo credit: Christine Jean Chambers

At the beginning of the century, actress, writer and comedian Rain Pryor put together a collection of self-penned songs and spoken word that would become Fried Chicken & Latkes (the title is a reference to her Black/Jewish heritage).  Back then, she discussed the material with her father, Richard Pryor, as well as a section in which she impersonates him.  Impressed, he gave his blessing, warning, "Don’t fuck it up.”

2015 marks ten years since Richard Pryor’s passing.  “I couldn’t perform the show for another three years after that,” she says.  “By that time, I had a daughter who was two and a half.  There was another generation to think of, a bigger story to tell that had come full-circle.   Fried Chicken & Latkes is and always has been a work in progress.”

Its latest incarnation premieres throughout the month of June at Harlem’s National Black Theatre, a unique and vibrant space whose history and purpose ties in effectively with Fried Chicken & Latkes’ emphasis on race and origins. The racism she encountered as a child included having the N-word spray-painted onto her home and crosses burnt on her front lawn.

Directed by Kamilah Forbes, this one-woman show tells the story of growing up biracial in an era fraught with civil rights tensions.  Rain plays eleven key characters from her formative years and divides them up with mostly self-composed songs, backed up by a three-piece jazz band.  A combination of cabaret seating and Rain’s entrusting approach to her audience assists the necessary intimacy.  Her voice is strong; she can skilfully extract sentiment from a note at the same time as facilitating the storytelling with lyrics and tone.

Frequently, her mixed heritage is playfully addressed: “I was proud…and yet I felt so guilty for it.”  Her parents, we learn, regarded their daughter’s birth as representing advanced race relations, as if her existence personified a political statement.  Through Rain’s interpretation of her mother Shelley Bonis, we discover that, like her daughter, she is a self-made woman and a fascinating assemblage of contradictions, namely, a former go-go dancing civil rights militant turned astronomer.  Rain’s maternal Jewish grandmother however, ticks all of the stereotypical boxes whilst demonstrating casual, albeit naïve, racism.  Upon hearing of Obama’s presidential win, she tells her granddaughter: “Rain-flower, I’m so happy for your people!”

It is Rain’s impersonation of her father and paternal great grandmother that are the stand-out crowd-pleasers. The former is still so popular and well-known that the accuracy of Rain’s portrayal affords it a natural segue into the piece rather than it being a distraction; the latter is a stern and yet hilarious former Illinois brothel keeper.

It is an emotive show that addresses racism, childhood and celebrity as well as measuring the evolution (or lack) of race relations since the inflammatory era of Rain’s childhood (she was born in 1969).  She has an amiable stage presence.  Under the guidance of Forbes’ direction, Fried Chicken & Latkes has just the right blend of banter, whimsy and poignancy.  The audience, instead of watching a polished memoir, engages with the interwoven stories and characters on an intimate level.

There is an undeniable curiosity from the audience about her father, but this is very much Rain's story of how the personalities she grew up around shaped her.  Her background is unconventional and yet she is relatable.

Post-show she admits to "making a conscious effort to get away from the celebrity thing and Beverley Hills, which is why I went to live in Baltimore.  I have a normal life there with my daughter."

Of her unconventional mother she adds, "She was from an upper-middle-class Jewish family.  Her father was Danny Kaye’s manager, but she didn’t want anything to do with show business.  She was a blonde blue-eyed woman who identified herself as a black militant.  She was very independent and never remarried after her divorce.  My mom became a scientist later on in life.  She’s a genius.  Growing up, we didn’t have money.  When I stayed with Dad I went on shopping sprees.  He had a butler and a maid.  I didn’t know then that black people could be poor.”

ABBWjFLFlhTYTB6TST9AaqkArdnVt4eadp1MqFJNlboAs for her father’s fame, she adds, “My classmates knew who he was but they were probably less aware than their parents were.”  She laughs.  “I remember a boy asking me for ‘blow’ because of who my dad was and I said ‘What’s blow?’”

There is a scene in Fried Chicken & Latkes in which a preening female classmate lambastes her for claiming to be half-Jewish.  Given her Black/Jewish heritage, did she feel inclined to lean one way more than the other?  "No.  I’ve always felt somewhere in between.”

Aged sixteen, during a rebellious phase, Rain went to live with her father.  Her mother, she says, "...went ballistic.  We had huge arguments but I was determined to do it and she couldn’t stop me.”  Despite his well-documented addiction to drugs and the ambiguous company he kept in and out of his home, Richard Pryor was a surprisingly strict disciplinarian.  In her show, Rain recreates a couple of their stand-offs to comic effect.

His legacy is strong still; he remains the comedian’s comedian.  He is consistently name-checked in modern culture.  The forthcoming biopic has already stirred media interest and debate, while his hedonistic off-stage antics are the stuff of legend.  Today’s repeat rehab offenders could learn a thing or two from the King of Comedy’s home-grown brand of stamina.

Rain Pryor’s parallel career as a stand-up comic began fairly recently. Comparisons with her father are inescapable.  It is evident from her current show, her stand-up material and her book, Jokes My Father Never Taught Me, that she has embraced the unavoidable familial referencing.  But was there a time when the constant association to him bothered her?  “My dad is part of who I am.  I embrace it.  That was never a problem.”

As for his financial legacy, “I didn’t get any money after Dad died.  In a way, it prevented me from being a fucked up celebrity’s child.”

His funeral was rushed and impersonal.  In her show, she uses humor and pathos to reimagine an appropriate send-off.  Is this a deliberate second chance?  “Exactly, I get to do that.  And it’s not just about me.  The world misses him.  With my show, they get a chance to say goodbye to him too.”

It was an audition for the late 1980s sitcom Head of the Class that marked the beginning of her television acting career and more besides.  Misunderstanding the instruction to return with three monologues, Rain created three characters of her own.  “I was writing my own material, but I didn’t realize that that’s what I was doing at the time.”

The revival and reworking of Fried Chicken & Latkes came after the Black National Theatre approached her.  “As soon as I saw the place and what they do, I wanted to perform my show there.  Kamilah is very talented.  She gave it structure and objectivity.  But after performing for so long, I too can distance myself professionally.  The cabaret set-up is very much a part of the show.  I much prefer an intimate venue and even if we were to take it to somewhere like Broadway, I love the idea of bringing chairs and tables to the stage where some of the audience can sit and watch.  Over the years at different places, audiences have participated in the music and singing.”

Did working on the show provide new perspective on the people in her life?  “Definitely!  I’ve dealt with my stuff.  I’ve worked through all that.  I’m not one race, I’m of the human race.  But we still have a lot of work to do.  I’m 45 now.  If you haven’t sorted things out by my age then you’re in trouble.”

"Fried Checken & Latkes" is at the National Black Theatre through June 28.

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Written by: K Krombie
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