By Cindy Mindell
Rain Pryor was born and raised in Los Angeles, the daughter of comedian Richard Pryor and Shelley Bonis (later changed to Bonus), a Jewish go-go dancer. After her parents divorced, Pryor spent time with both grandmothers and in both cultures, forging a unique identity that combined elements from her Black and Jewish legacies.
In 2004, Pryor created and toured in “Fried Chicken and Latkes,” an award-winning solo show based on her life that played to sold-out crowds and standing ovations across the country and in the UK. In 2005, the show won an NAACP Theatre Award for Best Female Performer Equity, and the Invisible Theatre’s Goldie Klein Guest Artist Award. The 2012 New York Times review of the “effervescent” show described Pryor as “a robust, ebullient performer.”
Pryor will perform “Fried Chicken and Latkes” on Thursday, Dec. 1 at the Greater New Haven Jewish Community Center.
After graduating from Beverly Hills High School in 1987, Pryor starred in the ABC series Head of the Class as Theola “T.J.” Jones, a role created from several characters Pryor performed at her audition. She starred for several years as Jackie, the lipstick-lesbian drug addict on the Showtime series, Rude Awakening, and has guest-starred on network television series such as The Division and Chicago Hope. She has appeared numerous times on The Tonight Show hosted by Johnny Carson and then by Jay Leno, as well as The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson and The Tavis Smiley Show.
Pryor’s stage credits include playing the title role of Billie Holiday in the UK tour of the Billie Holiday Story and the title role of Ella Fitzgerald in the UK premiere of “Ella, Meet Marilyn.” She performed in the Los Angeles productions of Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” with Nora Dunn and Charlene Tilton; “Joan” by Linda Chambers, in which she portrayed Joan of Arc; “Cookin’ With Gas” with the Groundlings improvisation troupe; “The Exonerated” with actor Aidan Quinn; and “The Who’s Tommy” at the La Jolla Playhouse.
Pryor is also a jazz and blues vocalist since 1993, playing to sold-out crowds in the U.S., UK, and Hong Kong.
She is the author of Jokes My Father Never Taught Me: Life, Love, and Loss with Richard Pryor (HarperCollins, 2006). From 2012 to 2013, Pryor served as artistic director of the Strand Theater Company in Baltimore. She has participated in panel presentations on diversity in education and in the entertainment industry at Princeton University and the Jewish federations of Los Angeles, Chicago, and Baltimore. The mother of an eight-year-old daughter, Pryor currently resides in Los Angeles.
Recently, she spoke with the Ledger about the evolution of her “Fried Chicken and Latkes” and the influences that shaped it.
Q: What is your show about and how has it changed since you first wrote it?
A: “Fried Chicken and Latkes” is about growing up Black and Jewish in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, up until the time my dad passed away in 2005. It’s about dealing with the racism on both sides of the family and among our friends and finding my place. It’s kind of a mirror reflection, because now I have this beautiful little girl and I’m having to point out to her the same things my parents pointed out to me. I’ve worked on this piece in different variations over 15 years and I have watched the story change: it was different when Obama was president; it’s now different because we have Trump for president and everything going on in the world that’s kind of bubbled up to the surface more. I think the piece is very timely because it addresses racism and other things that we may have been more reserved in talking about before, and I think we’re at a place where we’re receptive because it’s in our face now.
Fifteen years ago, I could define myself as a Black woman who is Jewish, or mixed race or whatever you want to call it. But the world sees me as someone with brown skin, and I’m ambiguous-looking because of the tone of my skin – I could be anything. That definition fit 15 years ago. As times changed and my dad passed away and Obama became president, racism was there and has always been there, but it was bubbling up during the last eight years. Now, it has erupted again. So a lot of the stuff I talk about hits differently now than it has over the last 15 years. We’re more open to hearing it because we’re not covered by, “Should we laugh at that or should we not laugh at that?” “Should we discuss that or should we not discuss that?” Now we’re like, “We should discuss it” because it’s here, it’s in our face.
Having a little girl is a part of that experience because I have to teach her the same things my parents taught me – it’s now in her face and she sees it.
Regardless of how we feel about what happened Nov. 8, this is a great learning opportunity. Culturally and as humans relating to each other, it’s a brilliant opportunity to deal with what has now erupted and is oozing out. I think what’s interesting right now is that our communities are outlined differently and we are at a place – especially after Nov. 8 – where we have to redefine what our communities look like.
Q: Have you been rewriting the show in the wake of Nov. 8?
A: The show is still what I did last year off-Broadway, but the Jewish Women’s Theatre in Los Angeles is putting up my show in February and so we’re in the process of rewriting because of what’s going on in the world. I never intended “Fried Chicken and Latkes” to run as long as it has. I first wrote it as a cabaret show and then it turned into a theatrical show with cabaret elements. Now, it’s taking another turn. It’s becoming a little more theatrical because we’re in a time when I think certain things can be said that weren’t said. Times have changed and if you’re an artist in entertainment like I am, I think works should be about viewing our lives. We should bring something to the table that makes us think and makes us feel and makes us question ourselves. I think that’s always been the job of entertainment.
My work is my activism. As a Black Jewish woman looking at what’s going on right now, we’re needed. And we need to laugh at ourselves a little bit and my show has those elements. It’s autobiographical but it really is universal. I didn’t make it “poor me” but we all have those people in our families – if you’re Jewish, you have the grandmother who says awkward, uncomfortable things because of the generation she grew up in. If you’re African-American, you have your grandparent or great-grandparent who says the off-color things because of the generation they grew up in. And then I look at who I am with these two cultures, two ethnicities, and two different religions, and I have to embrace all of it. I choose to embrace all of it because it’s who I am.
Q: Where does your name come from?
A: It was raining out and my parents thought that I would be Rain no matter if I was a boy or a girl – and there was a lot of marijuana involved. My parents were flower children.
Q: How were your parents involved during the ‘60s?
A: My mother was very big in the Civil Rights movement and she did marches and a breakfast program with the Black Panther party. My dad, in terms of his work and his comedy, was always outspoken; he was also friends with the Black Panther party and obviously didn’t have an objection when he married my mother and my sister’s mother and other women in his life, who have not been Black. For him, it was about seeing the world as it is but also thinking, if I have these children, it will change the world.
Q: Who are the main artistic influences in your life and how have you honed your artistic skills?
A: Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan – any of the Big Band era; I was born in the wrong era musically – Lily Tomlin, Whoopi Goldberg, Meryl Streep. My father: I talk about him in my show; he was a cabaret singer before he became a standup comic. As an artist, I watch him objectively, from the outside in and only then I realize, that’s my dad. He’s in my performance.
My grandfather, Herbert Bonis, was Danny Kaye’s manager for 36 years. So this is all I know; I didn’t grow up with doctors and lawyers, although my mom’s an astronomer and has won awards for science and teaching. I have a very intellectual, creative mind, and I think it’s something you are born with. You can learn technique but I think the true talent is something you have already and cannot be manufactured.
I took a few acting classes after my TV series just to keep in shape. I took dance classes and singing lessons but I didn’t do it to be it; my parents gave it to me because they already thought I was it.
Q: How do you think your dad would react to the recent presidential election?
A: Besides the fact that I think he would have thought about packing up to move, I think he would have gone to his sacred spot, which was in Hana Maui, Hawaii. He would have wanted to be with the island people and near the water. It always was safe for him. We used to have a home there and that was where we spent a lot of off time.
Q: How do people react to “Fried Chicken and Latkes” ?
A: My audiences usually are Jewish. When I performed off-Broadway at the National Black Theatre in Harlem, that was the first time I had a predominantly African-American audience. The only difference I have seen is that an African-American will participate more and be more vocal, whereas Jewish White audiences are culturally different; we don’t do that at shows. My show lends itself to participation: you can enjoy, you can laugh, you can talk back. It’s different for different groups and when I have both, it’s awesome because you have the people who laugh at one thing and the people who laugh at another and then they’ll laugh all together.
Q: How do you express your dual identity today?
A: For High Holidays, my mom and I go to the Pico Union [formerly Sinai Temple], the oldest synagogue building in Los Angeles. They do a lot of outreach. I also embrace my Black African-centric heritage and practice Ifa, an ancient and mystical Yoruba tradition honoring the ancestors, which to me went beautifully with the High Holiday services. I embrace culture and tradition and I would say I’m a spiritual being more than I’ll ever be a religious being.
Q: We talk about a “golden era” of Jewish and African-American relations in the U.S. during the ‘60s but there doesn’t seem to be a concerted effort in that direction today. How do you see the rapport between the two communities today?
A: There isn’t an effort to come together and that’s kind of what “Fried Chicken and Latkes” is about. It sparks in the people who were a part of that generation the realization, “Oh, we had that,” and in the people who aren’t a part of that generation, “We need that again.” I think that now, especially, we do need it: we need to find commonalities and we need to have the awkward, uncomfortable conversations. As someone who is a “both,” I always encourage that conversation.
Being in Los Angeles, there are some temples that are dedicated to that outreach and working with the Jewish Women’s Theatre, part of our goal is to envelop and embrace and invite the African-American community and to foster these kinds of discussions. We need to come together and talk about what’s sometimes difficult to talk about, laugh at ourselves a little bit. My show has nothing to do with food – it’s just the title of it – but it has everything to do the fact that if you put together fried chicken and latkes, it’s really delicious. We can do that as people and be really delicious.
“Fried Chicken and Latkes” with Rain Pryor: Thursday, Dec. 1, 8 p.m. (doors open at 7 p.m.), JCC of Greater New Haven, 360 Amity Road, Woodbridge, 6 p.m. pre-show reception featuring kosher fried chicken, latkes, and more. For tickets and/or information: jewishnewhaven.org / (203) 387-2424.