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Theater Fri Oct 16 2015

Unspeakable: The Life of Richard Pryor @ Broadway Playhouse

Unspeakable at Broadway Playhouse

The new production Unspeakable opened Tuesday night to a full house eager to understand the life and work of Richard Pryor, presented as a "dramatic fantasia." Film critic Pauline Kael once said of Pryor that he was "a master of lyrical obscenity; the only great poet-satirist among our comics."

Yet for all of the light he shone with his comedy, he was a broken and deeply flawed man. As a result of the abuse and neglect he suffered while young, Pryor continued the cycle, abusing women, becoming an addict and neglecting his children. So many things about Richard Pryor's life must have felt unspeakable to him, from his traumatic early experiences being raised in a brothel by his grandmother, abandoned by his alcoholic parents, to being sexually abused during his formative years. Maybe because he couldn't talk about those things, he needed to find an avenue for his outrage at the world. The prejudice and disadvantage he experienced gave him the courage to look beyond his comedic ambitions and address the rampant racism in society through the art of comedy. And he did it so well, breaking down taboos and holding a mirror up to humanity in turn.

But Unspeakable is not the story of Pryor's work. It is the story of his life. And although it delved lightly in to his comedy--showing how he at first emulated the saccharine routines of Bill Cosby, or as he called it "homaging the shit out of him," he soon felt the need to break away---to work out issues he had regarding his place in the universe and his pointed feelings about society. Tragically, Pryor also used this anger and his growing dependence on drugs to keep people away. But the show is not all grim. There are moments of comedy, inducing great whooping laughs of surprise and pleasure at his ability to push limits, and to question the status quo.

He tosses around the "N" word until your ears decide it has no meaning. At one point, Pryor goes on a long singsong rant about the word and how he will use it until the day white people stop using it as a hateful term.

But in the second half of the play, in perhaps the only moment where he transcends his suffering and opens up to the audience about an epiphany he had while visiting Africa (the original Pryor routine can be seen here), Pryor changes his mind about tossing around the word. "These are Black people, Africans, creators of math, pyramids, languages, science, religion. They are Africans, beautiful people, the 1st people. Not 'niggers,' a word labeling us, making us feel bad about who we are, branding the souls of Black folks with the sense of being small, unimportant. But we claimed it. We took it, owned it, created new ways to use it... And it still means the same thing: Less than. There's evil in that. Life is perception. Perceive yourself a certain way, and that's what you become."

The three demons that haunt him in the show--reflecting his inner warring monologue, soon pipe back,:"Will you stop using words like 'bitch' and 'cracker' too?" One of his sidekicks replies, "Wait a minute now. Let's not be so hasty. Some people deserve to be called 'bitch' and 'cracker.'" To which Pryor replies, "The bottom line is: I discovered my Blackness."

James Murray Jackson Jr. plays Pryor with a fervor that attests to how much he esteems the man. He created the role, developing it in to a play out of an award-winning performance he did in 2005 at the New York International Fringe Festival. Jackson has Pryor's voice, mannerisms and quirks down to a T. Jackson's and director Rod Gailes' rendition of Pryor is hard played, revealing the details and origins of his demons like addiction and fear of commitment, as well as his flaws like self-absorption and paranoia about being used for his money. But it is rare that we get to see the sensitive side of Pryor in this production. Apart from his respect towards his grandmother and a few moments from his childhood, he is portrayed as a man desperate for validation and 'pussy'. Yet all who know Pryor's work have seen a vulnerability and depth to him that defies his subject matter and his checkered life. It is hard to reconcile these two sides to Pryor without seeing him switch in and out of his role as performer. As Unspeakable continues on its trajectory past opening night, I hope that they are able to provide a few more transitions for Pryor to illustrate this unfathomable divide.

The supporting cast, all who play ensemble roles as well as specific ones, was amazing in their ability to switch gears and characters. Perhaps the most formidable presence onstage was Pryor's grandmother Mama played by E. Faye Butler, who was recently interviewed for Gapers Block. When she spoke or sashayed across the stage, she drew gasps and laughs as audience members recognized in her the powerful, sometimes benign, but frequently terrifying influence of the matron.

Also of note in the production was the set by Felix E. Cochren, choreography by Amy Hall Garner and stage direction by Rod Gailes, all of which helped the plot onward and kept the multiple timeline hops clear. There were clever uses of space to show each character's distance from Pryor. His wife, with a crying newborn, spoke to him from the balcony, pleading for his attention and time, while the whores, drug dealers and employees he trucked with were right by his side. In the end, only one woman got to get close to him, his last wife Jessica, but it came with the price of accepting his addiction, fear of being cuckolded and the abuse that followed.

Unspeakable unapologetically embraces the paradox of Pryor's existence, revealing the man who wanted the world to love more and the same man who couldn't find the tools to do so in his personal life. What better evidence could there be against the painful, lingering effects of racism then to show the result of generations of institutional poverty and racial degradation on one ambitious and intelligent man who once said about his work "Two things people throughout history have had in common are hatred and humor. I am proud that, like Mark Twain, I have been able to use humor to lessen people's hatred."

Unspeakable will run until Oct. 25 at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place. Performances are Tuesday through Sunday and the show runs 130 minutes. Tickets range from $35 to $79.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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