As the daughter of comedy genius Richard Pryor, Rain Pryor was destined to perform. Much like her late dad, the multi-talented Rain uses her gift for self-expression to explore touchy subjects like race and self-identity. Currently performing her deeply personal one-woman show “Fried Chicken And Latkes” off Broadway at New York’s Actor’s Temple Theater, Rain is adding her own twist to her father’s storied legacy. As an author (2007’s “Jokes My Father Never Taught Me”) and professionally-trained singer, dancer and actress, she bravely dissects her past struggles growing up bi-racial in a country that was still sorting out the differences between Black and White. For our latest “Original G’z” feature, Mechanical Dummy caught up with Rain to discuss her childhood, her inspirations and her ultimate goal as a creator.
Words by G. King
Mechanical Dummy: What was your first creative moment?
Rain Pryor: I think my first creative moment was birth (laughs). My parents would literally say it was birth. They knew I was gonna be a creative person. So I think it really happened for me when I was five-years-old and I put on the rainbow-colored afro wig. My dad was rolling a video camera and I just pretended I was the host of a show. And my sister was singin’ in the background. And I was like, “Get it girl! Get it!” I think that’s where it started.
MD: Did you parents always know you’d become a performer?
RP: They always knew that that’s what I was gonna be, a performer. From the get-go. So they supported everything I did when it came to performance; I took dance classes, I took opera singing lessons.
MD: Did you know this would be your profession?
RP: It’s something that I always knew I wanted to do with my life. And luckily I was around people that really could support me in it. From watching my dad, even the school I attended. I went to Beverly Hills High School, we had the most amazing theater department that actually put on shows that were like Broadway shows. Because they had the money for it. So to be immersed in that kind of culture— and I went with my dad on set and I went with my mom on set. It’s all I knew, really. I’m sure if I had a family of doctors or lawyers, maybe I would have thought to be something else. But I literally believe I was born into what it is that I do… My mom was a go-go dancer and then my mom became a stand-up comedian. And then she was an actor and a writer. And then she realized she was super brilliant and smart and literally became an astronomer working for Cal Tech and NASA and all that. She’s brilliant.
MD: Growing up around the entertainment industry, what did you know about the business that most aspiring performers wouldn’t have known?
RP: I knew that it was a hit-or-miss. You’re hot one minute, you’re not the next. I knew that it was a phase. No one cares what you did last time, they care what you’re doing right now. And you don’t necessarily have to be talented anymore to be famous. You just have to sometimes do stupid things. And I think that’s what separates someone who’s a true artist. I grew up learning how to be an artist. And there’s a difference between an artist and someone who just steps into it. It’s like people who think they can sing and you watch them on American Idol and they can’t. Because they’re looking at someone else doing it and they become famous for not being good. Like that song, “Gangnam Style.” That guy can’t sing. He just created a niche that everyone’s dancing to.
MD: What distinguishes a true artists from someone who’s just doing it for a check?
RP: A true artist is someone who really takes their craft seriously. Acting is a craft, it’s a skill. And you have to understand the business. I grew up a triple-threat. I took dancing lessons, singing lessons and acting lessons… You have to have a skill set and it’s not good enough to be good. I think you have to strive to be great at what you do. I think as an actor, for me, I study people. It’s really studying people and the psychology of people because if you’re gonna play other people, you should know how people think, feel and act in the world. And so it’s like being an archeologist and a scientist in what we do. An artist really does that. Just like a painter studies what kind of paints, how the paints are made. Which kind of paint works better on canvas. What kind of paint is gonna work on wood. It’s just studying what you do and taking it seriously and know that you do it because you also really love it.
MD: You do great impressions of your dad and other family members in your show, what’s your technique?
RP: I really study people. And I try to get their voices down. I try to listen to how they speak, watch how they walk, watch how they respond to certain stimuli around them. I love sitting in the park and watching different people go by… I’m like, “Oh, that’s how she responds to the bus going by.” She’s interesting. I watched a guy who talks to himself. “Why is he talking to himself?” I ask questions.
MD: You used “Fried Chicken And Latkes” as a powerful tool for mastering your self-identity, where did the idea first come from?
RP: The idea really came to me after having a discussion with Melvin Van Peebles. He said to me, you can’t wait for Holywood to come to you, you kind of have to go to it. And so create your own thing. That’s how he did it. He’s started making his own film. So I decided, “I’m gonna create my own show and stop waiting and trying to drive myself crazy trying to fit into some box.” I’m a, like they say, trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. It’s like, let me just be the square and create something for myself that says, “This is what I do.” So “Fried Chicken and Latkas” came out of that. One of my dad’s biggest things is, “The first point you, the thing that you know your best is your self.” And my dad is like, “So tell this story about yourself. That’s what makes stand-up so great. It’s the truth about themselves. So that’s where it came from.
MD: What kind of reaction were you expecting to get?
RP: It was the first time I’ve been that open. I really thought I wrote a drama. I thought it was really dramatic. And when I performed it, people laughed. So I found out I wrote a comedy (laughs). Like, I thought, “This is heavy, this is serious.” And people laughed and I was like, “Oh my God, I wrote a comedy.” I had no idea. I just wrote it. At first I was like, “I thought I wrote this really great, dramatic piece! What happened?” And then I realized, “You know what? I think people identify with the pain. And that’s what makes them laugh.” And then I realized, “Well that’s what my dad did.” And so it became easy, the fact that it was my life. My biggest goal with my show was not to make it a mea culpa like, “Poor me!” So that was where the work began. To make sure that it stayed and I strayed away from it becoming just, “Let me pour my heart out but there’s no real story there.” Which is the downfall of a lot of solo performances.
MD: Who inspired the idea of a one-woman show?
RP: I watched Lilly Tomlin, I watched Whoopi Goldberg. Those were my influences. What was great about Whoopi is she was telling these stories of these people and they had depth and you were learning about their lives. And that was just so fascinating to me. So here I was watching her bring these people to life. I was absolutely fascinated.
MD: What advice would you give to young creators hoping to follow in your footsteps?
RP: The first thing I’d say is you have to be honest with yourself and where your talent lies. And that’s really hard for some people. You have to know whether or not you not only have the talent, and I mean the real talent, but you also have to know if you’re willing to take the rejection that you will get. Because you will get it. And do you have that muscle for it. ‘Cause you’re gonna hear a lot of no’s before you here yes.
MD: What kinds of struggles have you faced in acting?
RP: The struggles I’ve had have been mostly racial. I’m not Black enough to be Black, I’m not White enough to be White, so where do you put her? The time that I was coming up in acting, everything is very Black and White. So where do you put someone like me? I definitely see it changing. Like if I watch a commercial, I see that it’s changed. I’m still waiting for it to change a little bit more in the TV world. And a little more in the theater world. And I think it takes people willing to take risks. And part of what I want to do with my career is become that person that opens that door for unique and different talent and that will open our eyes to it. And it takes someone thinking they can do it. Everyone wants a quick dollar so they sell themselves out instead of going, “Let me take a risk and do it this way and introduce this type of person into the world through performance.
RP: How do you want “Fried Chicken And Latkes” to affect race relations in mainstream culture?
MD: My thing is this, as a person of color, a Black woman, my thing is getting us back to understanding what the real traditions of our African ancestry was about. I practice Yorùbá, and part of that is understanding the idea that it takes a village and the idea that it’s not about us, it’s about abiding by universal law in the world. And how do we do that? And that’s by becoming leaders ourselves. We have the power to become leaders, we just forgot because of slavery. That’s really what it’s about for me.
RP: What’s next for you?
MD: I’m right now creating a TV show. I’m in the process of creating, in collaboration, for a TV show. And I want to continue to direct theater because I love directing. And I have a non-profit in Baltimore called “Baltimore Theater Works” and we present performance opportunity to inner-city youth in Baltimore City. It’s great. You see kids that really want it. When you think of kids that are coming from gang violence and all of this stuff, they don’t have the luxury to have an imagination. And here I am getting to give them a chance to explore what it means to have an imagination. And that it’s safe. And that through their own experiences, they can bring that to the table. That’s what theater’s about. And also working together as a community. Because theater’s about a sense of community. So again, it ties back to my whole thing of understanding your true Africa self. It’s not about wearing a Dashiki or playing some drums. It’s a way of life.