Despite her successful career as a singer, actor, comedian and author, Rain Pryor is most frequently identified as the daughter of the famously outspoken African-American comedian Richard Pryor and Jewish dancer Shirley Bonus. But Pryor’s parentage and upbringing have given her a wealth of her own material. She has explored that material in her one-woman show, “Fried Chicken and Latkes,” which has traveled throughout the states in recent years; her 2006 memoir, “Jokes My Father Never Taught Me,” (Harper Entertainment), and, most recently in her touring cabaret show, “Pryor Experience.” Pryor lives in Baltimore with her husband Yale, and her daughter, Lotus Marie, and will be appearing at The Stoop Storytelling Festival in Baltimore on July 10. Ezra Glinter, a Winnipeg, Canada-based writer, recently spoke with Pryor about her work, her father’s influence, and the intersections between African-American and Jewish comic traditions.
Ezra Glinter: What did you learn from your father as far as your comedic style goes, and where do you differ?
Rain Pryor: I think it’s just about being truthful in the humor. For me, I talk about my life, and I guess people find that hysterical for some reason. I don’t know why. My life is really dramatic, but other people find it funny.
Tell me about your new show, “Pryor Experience.” Is it a departure or a continuation of “Fried Chicken and Latkes”?
“Pryor Experience” came out of a real love of mine. I love singing jazz and blues music and I started performing cabaret way before I ever did “Fried Chicken and Latkes” — and that’s how “Fried Chicken and Latkes” was born, out of a cabaret act. But [“Pryor Experience”] is not a play. I’m not going through the sequence in my life, growing up Jewish in Beverly Hills. It’s completely different, I don’t throw characters out there; I’m not doing anybody onstage. It’s like if you were going to see Bette Midler or Etta James. The one thing I do talk about is the fact that I am a mom. And it’s bluer, which means that the humor is a little more adult — far more adult.
You are active in a variety of disciplines including writing, acting and singing. Is there a common thread to your work across these different forms?
The common thread would be the fact that they’re all acts of entertainment and they’re different aspects of things that I really love to do. When I was younger, you were trained to be a triple threat, which is much different than nowadays, where you either sing, you act or you dance. It was an old Hollywood mentality, where kids actually grew up to learn how to do all three things.
It’s no secret that some of the most influential comedians have been either black or Jewish. How has the confluence of these two traditions influenced your work and your career?
I think it affects my work in the sense that I draw on both and pull in both kinds of crowds. Some nights I have a predominantly black audience and some nights I have a predominantly Jewish audience — and some nights I have a great mixture of both. For me that’s where it’s fun. You find yourself adaptable; you understand both worlds. I think the work that I do really allows me to bridge the two communities and show a lot of the similarities and to start a dialogue between two, instead of the standoffishness that the two communities at different times and places can have.
How do you think racial identification continues to play a role in popular culture and entertainment?
I don’t know nowadays how important it is. I am who I am; I happen to be black, and I happen to be Jewish. And I practice Buddhism. It’s more important to identify myself, even if it is cliché, as part of the human race. But I think for me to say this is my makeup and this is who I am, that’s extremely important.
In your book, “Jokes My Father Never Taught Me,” you describe the many difficulties of your childhood including your father’s drug use. How did you manage to overcome these difficulties, and what advice would you give to kids in similarly difficult situations who want to pursue a creative career?
I don’t believe that anyone is perfect. I don’t try to be perfect. I think the thing is, for me, I don’t want to be a stereotype. I don’t want to be like other people who are kids of celebrities. … It’s not like I’ve never smoked pot or drank alcohol. I tried it, but it wasn’t who I was or what I was or where I wanted to be. It’s sort of like in life you decide who you are, where you want to go, how you want others to view you and that’s the path you, should walk down.
This story "Triple Threat" was written by Ezra Glinter.
Ezra Glinter is the critic-at-large of the Forward.