Rain Pryor embraces the Jewish and African-American heritages that make her whole

By Christina Campodonico

For all intents and purposes, Rain Pryor should be screwed up — royally. Hookers, ex-girlfriends, hangers-on and ex-wives ran rampant while drugs and alcohol flowed freely in the palatial home of her father, the much beloved and intensely provocative king of comedy Richard Pryor.

Her mother’s apartment in the “wrong part” of Beverly Hills wasn’t the most stable environment either. Not long after her father’s 1980 attempt at suicide by self-immolation while freebasing cocaine, 11-year-old Rain discovered her mother Shelley Bonus (Richard Pryor’s second of five wives) in bed with slashed wrists, feebly attempting to staunch the flow of blood with some scarves — an episode Rain details in her memoir “Jokes My Father Never Taught Me: Life, Love and Loss with Richard Pryor.”

“I should be that kid that’s f**ked up,” she says during a break on the set of her one-woman show “Fried Chicken and Latkes,” now playing at Jewish Women’s Theatre in Santa Monica. “I’m a celebrity’s child, and a celebrity known for drugs and alcohol. Not my thing. I tried it. I did it. I even went to Alcoholics Anonymous, like a 12-step. I stayed for 15 years and my mom started laughing, because my mom really went to those kinds of things, and she was like, ‘Why are you? You’re not one of us. You never have been.’ Codependent? Yes. And that’s my thing: I had to learn to not take care of everybody.”

On top of dealing with her parents’ mental health and drug abuse issues, Rain had to wrestle with her own challenges — namely her identity as
the daughter of a black man and a white Jewish woman at a time when growing up biracial meant being actively scrutinized or even  threatened. In both her show and her book, she recounts seeing crosses burned on her front lawn during the 1970s and shares how both black and Jewish kids shunned and bullied her for being biracial.

Rain Pryor juggles heartache, comedy and biracial identity in “Fried Chicken & Latkes”
Photo by Maria Martin

In spite of her tumultuous childhood, Rain survived a strong and whole person — “Sometimes I feel like angels kissed me,” she says — who has reconciled her parent’s imperfect way of loving her and prefers to look at the bright side of things, like her youth spent with her grandparents in Marina del Rey, where she currently resides. Call her a cockeyed optimist.

“I think that’s just who I am,” says Rain, now 47. “I’ve been that way since I was a kid. My dad always said that: ‘Why are you so damn happy?’”

And happy she is. The actress-comedian-writer-producer, “Head of the Class” alum and proud mom of an 8-year-old daughter named Lotus Marie feels like she’s finally come into her own as a creative artist with JWT’s production of “Fried Chicken & Latkes.”

“It’s not a tell-all,” Rain says of her show, which has her playing 10 different characters from her life, including a dead-on imitation of her famous father. “It’s a play that happens to be about me. It’s not a mea culpa or the Richard Pryor story … the ‘duh, duh, duh,’ poor daughter of a celebrity. You’re hearing about life experience, and he just happens to be a part of it.”

Although she’s been developing the show and touring it off-and-on for the past 15 years, the current iteration breaks new ground.

“It’s deeper now,” she continues. “It’s real. It’s tangible. It’s intimate. It’s not presentational. I’m letting you in. There’s a vulnerability that wasn’t there before.

“To me now, I think it’s a theater piece. This is a piece of theater.”

But damn, it sure is funny, too.

In the show you talk about not feeling Jewish enough or black enough while seeing burning crosses on your front lawn. How did you deal with racism as a child?

In our family, this is how you deal with it: You put your pants on. You put your shoes on. You keep walking. You’re gonna face it, so you’re going to deal with it.

Did I notice it? Yeah, I noticed it with acting. I noticed it when I didn’t get certain parts. And when people told me, “You should get your face redone because you look too much like your dad” or “You’re not black enough, you need to learn how to be more black.” And I’m just like, “No, it’s called acting. Give me a chance.”

Did being a Pryor make it easier or harder to break into showbiz?

I think it made it harder, because the assumption is “she’s funny.”  And yes, I am. But I studied Shakespeare. I studied classical theater — you know, “Hamlet,” “Medea.” Give me a chance! I think that’s been the hardest thing.

Left: Rain Pryor shares a strong bond with her daughter Lotus, 8. Middle: In this family portrait, Richard Pryor’s children (starting clockwise) Kelsey, Steven, Richard Jr., Rain, Elizabeth and Franklin gather round their father, while grandson Randis sits on the patriarch’s lap.
Right: A family photo with baby Rain and (from left) her maternal grandmother Bunny, mom Shelley Bonus, and great-grandparents Gus and Sharlet on an outing in Marina del Rey.
Photos courtesy of Rain Pryor

Did you avoid stand-up comedy because it felt like being too much in your father’s shadow?

No, the people are ugly. Negative. That’s the only reason. I mean, yeah, was there that pressure? Of course. Everyone wants to see him. But they don’t want to see you. Your last name is Pryor. They want to see him on stage with boobs. And I’m like, “I can’t give you that. I’m going to give you me.”

How do you define yourself now?
Do you embrace any labels?

I defend my labels. When I hear people ask, “So, do you practice Judaism?”  I’m like, “Well, I’m Jewish, but I also practice Ifa, which is an ancient African spiritual tradition.”

What have you learned from your parents about being a parent?

I’m so much better than they were [laughs], which my mom will definitely tell you. I don’t know what it is about me, but I think I was born to be a parent. I do. I love it. Sometimes, is it hard? Yeah, I’m a single — you know I’m not a “single” mom; I have a boyfriend — but I’m a single mother. I take my kid to work with me. If I had a nine-to-five I couldn’t do that. She’s with me all the time. I think I never wanted to make the mistakes my parents made, so I’ve kept her very close. … I think I’m very protective of Lotus, like a tiger-lion-mama bear. I got that from my mom, and my bullshit detector got stronger.

Women play an important role in this show. What have you learned from each of the major women in your life: your father’s grandmother Mamma, your Jewish grandmother and your mother?

I think from my mother I’ve learned that your word is your bond. I learned from Mamma that — which is just like Dad — no matter what, you have to be honest. And I think from Bubbie (her Jewish grandmother) I learned about cooking, and that appearance sometimes matters.

Have you learned things about them through creating this show that you weren’t quite aware of as a kid?

I think what I learned was that my [maternal] grandmother was very affected by the racism I encountered as a kid, and that she really loved my mother and wanted her and my dad to work out. My mom never saw the picture that I have of them together, the wedding photo. So I showed it to her the other day and she teared up. And I realized that’s a part of her, I think, that still hurts. I think she really loved him. She really loved creating me, thinking this was going to be the picture. She didn’t marry him thinking they would ever not be together. She married him because they were going to be Josephine Baker and have rainbow children and make the world this better place through creating art and entertainment, but in this flower child way.

And your father?

I think I learned that he’s human. And he was vulnerable and he made mistakes and he loved the best he knew how. I think through this process, I understand him as a man and I understand his impact more so as a performer, how he affected people.

How is this iteration of “Fried Chicken & Latkes” different than before?

I was so used to doing my show on the big stage. I’d have a three or four-piece band with me. And so I was afraid that removing some of those elements and digging deeper and writing new stuff, I wouldn’t get what I got Thursday night [a standing ovation].

So now, creating this version of it, I feel like I’m closer to home. It’s intimate. What I realized about me is I had kept my show presentational, and I think I did that because to feel it hurts sometimes, and I didn’t want to hurt. And I didn’t trust myself as an actor to not just do caricatures of my characters, although I have gotten rave reviews for that. This time I had to go deeper. It’s like I’m vulnerable, man.

I saw you tear up a little bit near the end, when you showed a picture of your daughter.

Well, she’ll make me cry in an instant. I think too, that night there were two things happening … I couldn’t help but to realize I’m writing truth, which is that she’s the change. And I want the world to be better than it is right now.

Do you still hang around the old neighborhood?

All I know is beach life. Flip flops and T-shirts. I’m an ocean water person.  I have to be near water. I still live in the family home — or condo, I should say.

My daughter loves Jerry’s [Famous Deli] on Mindanao Way. But it used to be different. When I was a kid, it really was like Jewish soul food. And now it’s like new management, so it’s like cruise ship deli food. We still go for the chicken fingers, and I’ll still go for my matzo ball soup — if I’m not going to make it myself.

What commonalities do you find in your Jewish and African-American heritage?

Family is important. Being true to your word is important. Strong women are very important, and how to mother and bring up the next generation. And traditions: You pass them on.

So to you they’re really not all that different?

You might cook a chicken in Judaism; [in Ifa] we’ll actually sacrifice a chicken and then cook it. [Laughs.] But we eat it. It does get eaten the same way.

And then my Iya [an Ifa priestess and spiritual guide], she’ll say to me, “But being Jewish is so African.” She goes, “I think you’re more African, just because of that.” So I don’t have to wear a dashiki. I don’t have to wear a turban. I don’t have to be, “Yo, I’m Afro-centric.” It’s already
in my DNA.

“Fried Chicken & Latkes” continues at 8 p.m. Thursdays and Saturdays and at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays through April 2 at The Braid, 2912 Colorado Ave., Ste. 102, Santa Monica. Tickets are $40. Call (310) 315-1400 or visit jewishwomenstheatre.org.