5 Questions: Rain Pryor Makes Her “Fried Chicken and Latkes”

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A gentle but torrential Rain. Photo by Peter Zimmern.
A gentle, torrential Rain. Photo by Peter Zimmern.

If you’re in the mood for fried chicken and latkes — that is, in a restaurant, in a single sitting, in a bright and kicky and rollicking setting — you might want to think twice before inviting Rain Pryor to chow down beside you. After all, it would not be like adventurous cuisine to her, for seemingly oppositional ethnicities have been the story of her life. And it’s also the title of her solo show, which opened at Off-Broadway’s Actors Temple Theatre last August.

For those muttering “Rain? Rain who?,” here’s some information: Pryor’s father was the iconic comedian Richard Pryor; her mother, Shelley Bonus, was a blonde and Jewish go-go dancer with some definite approaches to racial equality. Pryor and Bonus came together at a moment — the late 1960s — when new ideas about interracial marriage were starting to percolate across the American psyche, and it was into this scene that Pryor was born on July 16, 1969, smack in that idyllic summer of love and four days before man set foot upon the Moon. In the annals of dramatic situations, it’s a superb set-up. Forty-odd years later, it’s now the stuff of which Pryor’s careening, confessional comedy is made. Fried Chicken and Latkes runs about an hour, but it’s torrential 60 minutes, with musical numbers and well selected anecdotes arming up together into a grin-inducing narrative arc.

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Pryor does not lack a knack for the controversial, unsettling, morally challenging broadsides for which her father was justly famous and often crucified. Here are some of the skit names as they are listed in the Fried Chicken and Latkes program: “Bernice/Bubbe,” “Nigger,” “Rain’s Mom Tells Off Principal,” “Wanita,” “Suicide Kinda,” “We Are Just One Race…Human.” Yet unlike her father, whose comedy genius stemmed from the way he stewed his audience in the juices of their own laughter, Pryor peppers her memoir-performance with a flair for sharp, satirical mimicry; she transforms her body and her voice so well that she salts the show a sweet sort of forgiveness. And Pryor does have plenty to forgive. If it weren’t bizarre enough to be the daughter of one of the most talked-about and on-the-edge comics in the world, it was worse to realize that that very same man was a wild womanizer, a despondent drug-user and a selectively demanding disciplinarian. She grew up at a time and in a place hostile to all things biracial.

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Fried Chicken and Latkes is not only the distillation of 20-plus years as an actor, comic and singer (her career began in 1989 when she starred on the ABC sitcom Head of the Class) but the latest milestone in a lifelong journey that is uniquely Pryor’s.

In prowling through the widest reaches of YouTube, we came across these two videos, below. The first is, perhaps, where Rain has come from, and the second is where she has happily landed. (Plus, they’re really just fun clips.)

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Today, when not performing, Pryor is also busy as artistic director of the Strand Theater Company in Baltimore, MD, a position to which she was appointed this year.

Fried Chicken and Latkes runs Mondays at 7pm, Saturdays at 2pm and Sundays at 5pm.

And now, 5 questions Rain Pryor has never been asked — and a bonus question:

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
The most perceptive question anyone asks is “Why still discuss the race issue?” I respond with “We need to keep speaking about it until it no longer exists.” Just because we don’t address race doesn’t mean it goes away. It will only be a nonissue when we face the skeletons in the closet.

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2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
The most idiotic question anyone has asked actually came during my show. A woman shouted “I don’t get it, is she black or Jewish?” The whole audience replied, “She’s both!”

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
The weirdest question anyone has asked is “Did you really write this?”

4) You’ve been performing Fried Chicken and Latkes since 2004. What is the hardest moment for you psychologically and your favorite moment comedically?
The hardest moment psychologically is reliving the day my father died. It’s still a raw emotion and a place for me that I have yet to get over. My favorite moment is the character of Mama and Wanita. Both say what I can’t and both get to have fun with the audience.

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5) You’ve talked extensively about your blue-eyed Jewish mother believing, or wanting to believe, she was or is black. Why do folks of one ethnicity want to be of another one? What is that about?
Well, for my mother it wasn’t about wanting to be black, it was about wanting to be a fighter for civil rights and activist. She adopted the lingo and style to make a political statement against race. Today it’s about pop culture and the influence it has on our young folks who are still trying to find out who they are.

Bonus question:

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6) What does the Strand Theatre do uniquely well among the nonprofit theatres in Baltimore and what do you bring to that chemistry?
What I do as artistic director is create a culture that cultivates and supports local artists, especially female voices and women of color. What I bring to the chemistry is the sensibility that small theater can create wonderful, deep, rich work. It’s like Off-Broadway — there are some amazing pieces, some even better than Broadway, like the show I am producing, Broke Wide Open. This guy, Rock Wilk, should be on Broadway, but we’re Off-Broadway and it’s great theatre.