February 23, 2020

Growing up Jewish, black and with a famous dad’s drugs and hookers

At age 13, Rain Pryor — daughter of comedian Richard Pryor and Jewish actress Shelley Bonus — put a plastic bag over her head and refused to take it off.

“I totally tried to kill myself,” Pryor, 47, said at The Braid performance space in Santa Monica, home of Jewish Women’s Theatre (JWT), which is producing her solo show “Fried Chicken & Latkes” through June 3. “The fact that I would do that and still talk to my mother through the bag is hilarious in hindsight. But at the time, I didn’t want to be here.”

She made that aborted try at suffocating herself not long after her father, despondent over the death of his beloved grandmother, had himself attempted suicide by setting himself on fire, according to Pryor

“Then there was my mother, who was struggling as an actress,” Pryor recalled, “and I felt like if I wasn’t here, it would just make their lives easier.”

At that time, in the 1980s, Pryor also was grappling with her identity as a biracial teenager. Jewish youths called her the N-word, schoolmates told her she wasn’t Jewish, and a cross was burned on her family’s front lawn.

“I felt like I couldn’t breathe,” Pryor said. And so, she put that plastic bag over her head.

The tension was diffused when her mother called a suicide hotline — and got placed on hold. “We laughed,” Pryor recalled.

In the poignant and hilarious “Fried Chicken & Latkes,” Pryor transforms herself into 11 different characters as she describes her fraught childhood, her efforts to merge her diverse identities, and her relationships with her parents and the family’s stalwart matriarchs. Her Jewish bubbe, Bunny, loved and helped raise her, even while dealing with confusion over her daughter’s interracial marriage. And her African-American great-grandmother, Mamma, was a former brothel owner, a “truth teller and speaker,” who taught Bonus how to cook soul food.

The show premiered at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills in 2003, but the version Pryor is performing at the JWT has been revised into a play from what was more of a cabaret act.

Eve Brandstein, the director and a producer of the show, has known Pryor since she was a girl and even attended her performances at Beverly Hills High School. Pryor went on to star on ABC’s “Head of the Class,” Brandstein noted.

Four years ago, Brandstein saw an earlier revision of “Fried Chicken & Latkes” at the Actors Temple Theatre in New York. “I was very moved by the struggles Rain experienced,” she said. “And there is a beautiful thing about the biracial experience that I particularly wanted to convey to the Jewish and the Black worlds.”

Brandstein brought the show to the attention of Ronda Spinak, JWT’s co-founder and artistic director, and together the two women helped Pryor rework her show, which they felt would appeal to diverse Jewish populations today.

“The characters now are fully developed people, as opposed to me just presenting caricatures,” Pryor said. She was funny and down to earth during a recent interview, wearing gray sweats since she had just come from the gym.

Pryor said her parents met in the late 1960s when her father spotted her mother at The Stardust Club on Sunset Boulevard. Richard Pryor was an up-and-coming comic and Bonus was a go-go dancer on the television show “Shindig!”

“He walked up to my mom wearing a giant clock around his neck, like Flavor Flav, and then he asked her for the time,” Pryor said.

The couple went on to write children’s stories about “race and coming together,” and were idealistic about having ‘rainbow-colored’ children,” she said. They married at a chapel in Las Vegas, and Bonus became the second of what would be Richard Pryor’s six wives (he married one woman twice).

“Then, he got famous,” Rain Pryor said. “He went to Vegas. He did his first big thing … and he came home with a silk shirt on, a gold necklace and cocaine. And that was it.”

Bonus eventually discovered him in bed with three other women. The couple divorced in 1969, when their daughter was 6 months old.

Thereafter, Pryor and her mother lived on welfare for a time until Bonus began working better jobs and ultimately became an astronomer.

Trying to connect to the Jewish world proved difficult for the family. Pryor said she and her grandparents attended a Reform synagogue for a time, but the rabbi made them feel unwelcome because of Bonus’ former interracial marriage.

Pryor lived with her father for a year when she was 13 and again from age 16 to about 18. He came to all of her high school plays and told her often that she was funny and talented. “He was utterly honest,” she recalled. “I loved the time I spent with him.”

But her father’s years of growing up in a brothel took a toll on him, she said. Seeing the unequal relationships between the johns and the prostitutes, she theorized, led him “to be driven to have money. It was like, ‘If I have money, I can control the women in my life and the people in my life. That became a ‘thing.’ ”

His comedy, in part, was a way to explore his issues “but also a great way to vent, and it was cheaper than therapy,” she said. “I just feel that most comedians are depressed … and he was probably bipolar.”

Pryor said she saw prostitutes coming and going at her father’s Bel Air mansion, which was lavishly decorated with African art. Cocaine was casually laid out in plain sight (she was told never to touch it). Sometimes she smelled the distinct odor of her father’s crack pipe. “My dad’s idea of baby-sitting was a hooker, Courvoisier and a blackout,” she recalls in her play.

Even so, the comic could be a strict parent. When she once came home with dyed, hot-pink hair, he declared, “There will be no punk rockers in this house!” To which she retorted, “Dad, there are hookers in this house.” He responded, “OK, you win.”

Pryor went on to become a drug counselor for six years at Beit T’Shuvah, a drug rehabilitation center and Jewish congregation. It was the first time she felt truly accepted by a Jewish community, she said.

Today, the divorced Pryor lives with her mother and her daughter, Lotus, 8, in Marina del Rey — across the street from Bunny. She honors her Judaism while practicing African religious traditions. Her show has traveled the country and was extended at The Braid after selling out its original six-week run.

“I don’t know why I’m so grounded, other than maybe I was kissed by angels,” Pryor said. “Maybe because the [drugs and alcohol] were so in my face growing up, I didn’t want any of that lifestyle. I didn’t want to become a statistic.”

The conversation turned back to when she was 16 and noticed her father complaining of debilitating headaches and walking slower. Two years later, in 1987, he was diagnosed with progressive multiple sclerosis, which eventually left him unable to move or speak. She helped care for him during his illness and became an ambassador for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, raising money for research and speaking to families and caregivers.

In December 2005, she got a phone call informing her that her father had died from complications of his condition. “The next thing I remembered,” she says in her show, “[was] letting out a scream as if I had given birth to my pain.”

In the play, she lights a yahrzeit candle and recites the Kaddish for her father.

“But I didn’t want this play to be like a ‘poor me’ kind of thing,” she said. “It’s this universal piece about being Black and Jewish, and discovery and hope in the world.”

For ticket information, visit this story online at jewishjournal.com.