Unspeakable: A Dramatic Fantasia
Like Richard Pryor himself, his engaging story on stage is raw and resolute
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IT goes without saying that Richard Pryor was an unparalleled comic genius, one who changed the entertainment landscape, but his road to the top is a story of success riddled with the demons of drug addiction, depression, failed relationships and the constant search for love and acceptance.
All of that pain, including acts of sexual molestation, is displayed expertly in Unspeakable at the Broadway Playhouse through November 8. For two hours, James Murray Jackson Jr. is a convincing “Richard Pryor” in appearance, manner and voice during the play that is dark with splashes of humor. With a goal to express Pryor’s energy, the production focuses on the brilliant but complicated comedian’s journey between 1967 and 1982, and also gives some insight into his turbulent younger years while growing up in a Peoria brothel owned and operated by his doting grandmother.
Walking a legal tightrope of sorts, the producers make it clear that the play is “a dramatic fantasia inspired by the life of the comedic legend.” In other words, it is not endorsed, supported or sponsored in any manner by the estate of Pryor or any other party connected with the estate or the comedian himself. Unspeakable co-writers, Jackson and Rod Gailes OBC, didn’t have the rights to use Pryor’s classic routines, but like other public and historical figures, the comedian’s life is a subject for creative interpretation.
That interpretation includes a graphic series of events that Pryor witnessed while hanging out with Bill Cosby at a party in the ’60s. It involved, he says, Cosby disrobing in the middle of the crowd before walking out onto the balcony. At that time in his comedic life, Pryor looked up to Cosby and embraced his form of humor, trying to appeal to white audiences to the point that, mistakenly or not, he was sometimes introduced as “Richard Cosby.” That led to perhaps the biggest step in his self-discovery. During a sold-out performance at the Aladdin Hotel & Casino in 1967, he had an epiphany, questioned what he was doing and decided it was time to “get off the big white Ferris wheel. I’m through with the white stuff!” He walked off stage, mid-show, and later found his real voice after immersing himself in the Berkeley, Calif., counterculture of the late '60s.
With direction by co-author Gailes, the show moves quickly through Pryor’s ascent to superstardom and highlights what he faced after reaching the top. The women. The frequent handouts to friends and family. The health challenges. His revelation in Africa. And the almost nonstop use of cocaine and crack that led to a crashing downfall. In Jackson’s depiction from the stage, a broken and uncharacteristically meek Pryor says, “No love, no trust. All I can do is smoke. The only one who understands me is my pipe.”
Pryor, confused by the persistent voices in his head, was an enigma who fought the demons in his life that ironically contributed to the persona that earned him the description as the greatest stand-up comedian of the modern era. “His [Pryor’s] story mirrors that of many people, though it is magnified through the lenses of wealth, fame and addiction. Many have felt abandoned, been abused or become abusers,” says Gailes. “Richard’s life, however, was an operatic version of the lives others lead less publicly. Understanding him helps us understand the human condition. We all have the capacity for love, hate, pain and destruction. Richard just did it bigger, bolder, funnier and more brazenly.”
On stage, Jackson––who originated the Pryor role in 2005 at the New York International Fringe Festival and received the festival’s Outstanding Lead Actor award––works with a cast of veterans, including Chicagoans E. Faye Butler, Lamar N. Barnes, Ebony Joy, Ronald L. Conner and Akilah Perry. Also featured are Northwestern alum Taryn Reneau, Roosevelt University alum Chris Amos, Kierra Bunch, a Black Theater Alliance Awards nominee, and Ginneh Thomas, a Jeff Award winner.
Unspeakable, described as a “theatrical event,” is raw, more drama than comedy, and even though it’s not authorized by Pryor’s estate (which would have allowed the use of Pryor's hilarious routines), the production is entertaining, engrossing and somewhat illuminating. At the end of the show on opening night and after the curtain call, Gailes came to the stage to join Jackson, who said, “In doing this presentation, we wanted to do right by Richard and share his story. We hope he is smiling.”
Unspeakable is presented by Tenacity Park, Creative Mind Entertainment, OBC DreamTheatre, Stefani Nicole Von Huben and Kenneth Schapiro. Individual tickets for Unspeakable range from $35-$79. A select number of premium tickets are also available for many performances. Group tickets for 10 or more are on sale by calling Broadway in Chicago Group Sales at 312/977-1710. Tickets are available at all Broadway in Chicago box offices (24 W. Randolph Street, 151 W. Randolph Street, 18 W. Monroe Street and 175 E. Chestnut), the Broadway in Chicago ticket line at 800/775-2000, all Ticketmaster retail locations and online at www.BroadwayinChicago.com.
James Murray Jackson Jr. portrays Richard Pryor in Unspeakable, a "theatrical event" that offers some insight into the comedian's tumultuous life.
E. Faye Butler (left), a Chicago favorite, plays Pryor's grandmother and the brothel owner. James Murray Jackson Jr. (above) appears without makeup.