Directed by Rod Gailes OBC
Produced by Broadway in Chicago
Playing at the Broadway Playhouse
Richard Pryor is Having a Meltdown, So You Are Too
Unspeakable is dark. Literally. Jorge Arroyo’s lighting design consists almost entirely of spotlights, used to fragment and obscure the Broadway Playhouse in Rod Gailes OBC and James Murray Jackson’s new show about Richard Pryor, in which Jackson plays the deceased stand-up comic. To explore the mind of this tortured artist, the creators take a Strindbergian dream play approach, presenting the clamorous voices and disorienting effect of crack cocaine directly to the audience (fun fact: August Strindberg also once set himself on fire). The problems with the show are twofold. One is that because Pryor’s estate refused to co-operate with Unspeakable’s creators, the show uses none of Pryor’s own material. It presents enough of his life to form a mostly coherent plot, but makes him too deranged for a person who is not already a fan to care about him. The other is that the entire show is in the same gear. In pretty much every scene, random people and things emerge from Pryor’s imagination to scream the n-word at him and each other. Altogether, Unspeakable is highly unpleasant, and doesn’t provide much to compensate for that.
Jackson’s performance is easily the best part of the show. His command over his voice and body allow him to easily slip between naturalistic and fantastic portrayals of his subject. Richard Pryor was a Peoria native, born to a prostitute and a pimp (Kierra Bunch and Ronald L. Conner) and raised by the madam, his grandmother (E. Faye Butler). He was sexually abused as a child, but found he could make his family laugh by humping a pig. Making people laugh became his career, but like the later Dave Chappelle, he was always deeply ambivalent about whether he was being laughed at, or with, for the right reasons. Originally, he associated with Bill Cosby, whom he was deeply jealous of for having such a clean-cut image. Jackson-as-Pryor relates a dream he had where Cosby was urinating off a balcony onto the heads of passersby, and Pryor took the blame, in one of the night’s more interesting anecdotes. But one night at a show in Las Vegas, Pryor asked himself at the mic “What the fuck am I doing here?” and his life changed forever.
Pryor hit the bigtime with the release of his album “That Nigger’s Crazy,” in 1974, and as implied by the title, he was far more outspoken. According to Unspeakable, he was also never again anything but enraged and bitter toward all people at all times. There are some scenes of him DJing a Berkeley radio station, during which he receives news of his relatives’ deaths, since his current wife has no other way of reaching him. These prompt more flashbacks, of him and his parents screaming at each other across time and space, and him calling out to them in a slow-motion voice. Eventually, he has an epiphany about his use of the n-word, but even after that, the rest of the play depicts him still physically and mentally abusing his friends and family, including a wife who is introduced way too late for us to care about whether she truly loves him or is a gold-digger. He also became addicted to crack and tried to burn himself to death.
It’s a complete mystery in the show why anybody would love Pryor, or enjoy his material. Really, most of his comedy wasn’t nearly as mean-spirited as depicted here. There are parts of the show that seem like they’re meant to be funny—a cocaine dealer convincing Pryor that crack is more scientifically advanced than powder, people popping out of Dutch doors—but they just don’t work. Almost every time an ensemble member shows up, either as a named character or a Greek chorus, it’s to curse in an exaggerated New York accent and scream at someone to shut up. Pryor is even pursued by the dead rat he watched while being raped as a child, played by Taryn Reneau, which joins in taunting him. Most of the dramatic moments are punctuated by choral chants representing his inner demons. The result is an unvaried cacophony that pours so much ugliness into the ears of the listener, anything human enough to be tragic gets drowned out. At opening night, a steady stream of people fled the theatre, and they presumably knew they were going to a play about Richard Pryor. Unspeakable would have an interesting story if it were more balanced between calmness, giddiness, and rage, or between laughter and hurt, or wisdom and mouth-frothing, but the presentation is a disaster.
Playing at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E Chestnut St. Tickets are $35-79; to order call 800-775-2000 or visit BroadwayinChicago.com. Performances are Tuesdays-Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 2:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm through October 25. Running time is two and a half hours with one intermission.