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The Uncivil Servant: Richard Pryor's Daughter Onstage

June 7, 2015

"Fried Chicken and Latkes"


by Mitchell Abidor

rainpryorRICHARD PRYOR was a unique figure in American comedy, his comedy developing from light and silly early routines to the pointed and profane humor of his later years, when he became a comedic god. He had, we learn in "Fried Chicken and Latkes," “either six or maybe seven children,” one of whom, Rain, has a one-woman show of that title running at The National Black Theatre, located in the heart of Harlem, until June 28.

Rain, as we can infer from the title, was of mixed background, her mother having been a Jewish go-go dancer and a dedicated opponent of racism, and Pryor presents her parents and their (failed) marriage as a bold attempt to break down the color barriers in America. Richard Pryor had his own way of breaking down those barriers: Rain is not shy about discussing her father’s case of what she calls WWD: White Woman Disease. Indeed, she’s not shy about discussing any of her father’s well-known flaws: his womanizing (speaking in her mother’s voice she tells of her having found him in bed with three other women, putting an end to their marriage), his fondness for prostitutes (he was born in the family’s whorehouse to a mother who was herself a prostitute), his drug use, his physical abusiveness (which she insists drew different reactions from white or from black victims, the white women taking it, the black women dealing tit for tat), and his general irresponsibility.

Despite this, if there’s one thing that’s clear from Fried Chicken and Latkes, it’s her love for her father, her forgiveness for his failings as a father.

In the style of Anna Deavere Smith, Pry acts in the voices and assumes the body language of the people who most influenced her: her mother with her Jewfro, trying to keep her daughter on the straight and narrow; her Jewish grandmother and her New York accent, telling her that “shopping is a Jewish woman’s orgasm;” her brothel-owning paternal great-grandmother; all of them types, mimicked perfectly.

Pryor tells of her confronting in Beverly Hills, of her friends refusing to believe she was Jewish, of how, being between two stools, she desired to have an Afro like Angela Davis’, of her envy of her friend Wanita, who was “chocolate,” of her maternal family’s belief in civil rights, of the progress made and then lost over the decades in the fight against racism.

Rain Pryor is a wonderful performer, but she’s less successful as a writer. In trying to find a shorthand for her family’s Jewishness she relies too heavily on throwing in the word “meshugene” as a marker. Her laugh lines tend to fall flat, and the jazz trio that plays behind her throughout the evening is unnecessarily obtrusive.

But as an act of love for her parents, as proof of her own resiliency, as a heartfelt statement against the racism that continues to rot America, as a tour-de-force of performance art, Fried Chicken and Latkes is a piece that deserves to be seen.

 

Mitchell Abidor, our contributing writer, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his translation of Emmanual Bove's A Raskolnikoff. His latest book is Anarchists Never Surrender, an anthology of anarchist writings by Victor Serge.