The legacy of comedic royalty Richard Pryor lives on in an unflinching ride of his life in Broadway in Chicago’s Unspeakable: A Dramatic Fantasia stage play. The two and a half hour hilarious, emotions-tugging play catapults theater goers into the landscape of Pryor’s life from 1967 and 1982. The play is hosted in Chicago, up the road from Pryor’s hometown of Peoria, Illinois.
Capturing the energy of a man battling success and the demons it invites, James Murray Jackson, Jr, who also co-wrote the piece, effortlessly portraits the funny comedian, with accurate mannerisms, stance and his uncensored personality.
The cast is chuck-full of Chicago talent, who play multiple roles, including the Windy City natives E. Faye Butler, Lamar N. Barnes, Ebony Joy and Akilah Perry. Also featured are Taryn Reneau, Chris Amos, Kierra Bunch, Jeff Award winner Ginneh Thomas and Chicagoan Ronald L. Conner.
The Source caught up with lead actor James and the stage play’s director, Rod Gailes OBC, as they discussed the in’s and out’s of the powerful stage play and why it’s a must-see. – Angela Wilson (@SheisAngela)
The Source: What’s a good reason for people to go see Unspeakable: A Dramatic Fantasia?
Rod Gailes: I can 98% guarantee that you’ll never see or experience anything like it. I kind of feel like people feel like they’ve seen it all and experienced it all, but I can pretty much guarantee you’re going to have an experience like you’ve never had before.
James, how did you prepare for your role as Richard Pryor?
James M. Jackson, Jr.: Oh, that’s a loaded question! Well of course you do the research, read everything you can get your hands on, but my true research was connecting to Richard spiritually and channeling his energy to bring the essence of who Richard was out through the character. You take in all the research, but you forget it and it’s just there, but all the mannerisms, feelings and thoughts that he may have had allow the imagination- or as my acting coach Susan Batson says, you allow your five year old to have a play date with his five year old, and then have fun.
Out of all the other legends and comedic icons to write a play about, why Richard?
James: I didn’t choose Richard- it’s funny, I hate to say when something chooses you, but it kind of felt like that. At the time, it was years ago back in 2000, I grew my hair out into an Afro and was my counter culture revolutionary self, I became a vegan and started my own theater company. And I talked to Rod and I just wasn’t happy about where I was at creatively as an actor and I really wanted to get back to the reason of why I wanted to become an actor.
He was working for Spike Lee at the time and he recommended I work with Susan Batson, noted acting coach. I kept hearing at my job or wherever I was at that I looked like a young Richard Pryor. And during her acting class, we had to chose a celebrity character and before I could chose she told me I should do Pryor. At that moment I thought something’s going on. She suggested I write a play, and at that time I hadn’t written a play, and Rod and I had a great working relationship and I asked him to do this with me.
Who’s idea was it for the actors to play multiple roles or did it happen organically?
James: While developing it, once we decided it wasn’t going to be a one-person show, [we had to decide] what does this concept look like? Is it an epic thing, with 50 people or will it be a musical, but be wasn’t a singer so we didn’t do that.
Rod: We started out with a three person cast, then it expanded from there. Then we settled into an eight person cast, then it changed to a seven person cast, a very important number to James and I, and it just felt right. Here in Chicago, we added three additional cast to the base ensemble.
Does Richard’s family know about the play?
Rod: Yes, oh yes, we actually had a conversation with Richard Pryor, Jr. last week.
James: We were very adamant about reaching out to the children. We wanted them to know from us that this was happening. We didn’t want them to hear about it second hand.
What do you guys think of the Richard Pryor movie coming out, played by Mike Epps?
James: I’m actually really happy about the movie because I look at it as anything out about Richard is great. I’m excited that his version and story of his life is getting expanded and told onscreen.
I think Mike Epps, being a comedian, is a great choice. Playing Richard is no cake walk, you got to come with your A-game and I think Mike is going to do a fine job.
How would you describe your directing style?
Rod: I would say because of my influences and how I as a consumer experience entertainment, my goal is to create repeat viewing entertainment. I want something that feels like art, where you want to see it again.
You know that movie you can watch back to back? That’s the kind of experience my style is rooted in; creating a truth, an entertaining ride, especially in theater, that you can watch back to back. I want to create experiences that feel like a roller coaster.
Unspeakable is playing at Broadway Playhouse in Chicago. To purchase tickets, see dates and times, click here!
Where: Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut
Tickets: $35 – $79
Info: (800) 775-2000; www.BroadwayInChicago.com
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission
Special thanks to Catrice Armstrong of PR Werks!
Photo credit: BroadwayinChicago.com, Joel Karie