The Creators of “Unspeakable” Play Talks About the Life of Richard Pryor

The world of entertainment comes with some pretty heavy burdens but most artists trying to enter into this world only recognizes the benefits and not the drawbacks. Richard Pryor was considered a genius in his transition from the cool, squeaky clean comic serving up rated G jokes into his darker side which was uncensored and raw. His personal and professional life played out on the stage and big screen giving the world a glimpse of his inner demons that was made into a biopic Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling in 1986.
unspeakablepic1Almost 10 years after his death from a long struggle with Multiple Sclerosis and suffering from a fatal heart attack, a dramatic play has been created about his life called, Unspeakable. Inspired by the comedian’s life, co-author and director Rod Gailes and leading actor James Murray Jackson, Jr., have assembled an ensemble cast of ten actors playing multiple roles. The play is receiving rave reviews in its five-week limited engagement at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place currently running October 6th through November 8th 2015.
Both Gailes and Jackson worked together on a previous show years ago when they first started out in the business. Gailes, a film school graduate was soon working with director Spike Lee and had the pleasure of meeting Lee’s Creative Consultant, Susan Batson. Some of her clients, at the time, included Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise leading an array of A-list clients. One day Gailes recommended that Jackson attend an acting class headed up by Batson.
While I was studying with Susan Batson, one of the things we had to do was to create a character in our class called “Developing Your Own Method.” In that class, she said that I should write a play about Richard Pryor. I hadn’t written anything like a play at that time. I went to Ron and told him I had a thought. I want to do something about Richard Pryor,” said Jackson.
Gailes had some earlier reservations about creating a one-man show. “At the time we started developing this, it had been done to death. Whoopi had really put her imprint on some things and John Legazamo also did the same act. But I was interested in doing an ensemble with Richard Pryor in the center of it,” Gailes said. “sort of paint the picture of the world of the people around him, producing an ensemble that would support and surround him in the center. That’s how we started working on it.”

Actor/Co-author: James Murray Jackson, Jr. plays Richard Pryor in "Unspeakable"

Actor/Co-author: James Murray Jackson, Jr. plays Richard Pryor in “Unspeakable”

With a talented ensemble cast that includes Chicago natives E. Faye Butler (Work- ing, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike), Lamar N. Barnes, Ebony Joy, Akilah Perry and Ronald L. Conner (King Hedley II). It brings a great platform for Chicago talent to be nurtured right here at home. Unspeakable also features Taryn Reneau (Much Ado About Nothing, The Taming of the Shew), Chris Amos (Both Your House, Tom Jones), Kierra Bunch (The Sun Always Shines for The Cool) and Ginneh Thomas (The Submission).
The story of the legendary comic was more than sex, drugs and comedy—it’s described as an unflinching ride through the emotional landscape of Richard Pryor’s sixty-one years focusing on the period between 1967 and 1982.
Growing up as children of the 1970s, both men can remember sneaking away to listen to their parent’s comedy albums and Pryor was included in the stack. With much research, Jackson found himself at the New York Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center and the Television and Radio Museum, compiling newspaper and magazine clips from Ebony and Jet. “You get a lot from his comedy that was fascinating. For example, I know that he shot the car but why did he shoot the car? That information is not in the world because we don’t know exactly what happened but it allowed us to go to a place of creativity to imagine what that would be like,” he said.
Gailes adds, “If Richard had came along five or ten years before, he wouldn’t have been able to get away with saying what he said. It was a time of political, social and revolutionary change. He was changing his focus from a Cosby clone to developing his own voice. In that late 1960’s period when he was turning into the Richard we came to know, that was the perfect intersection for social change,” Gailes said. “Richard was working to push the boundaries forward. That’s what made him different from other people.”

Iconic Comedian/Actor: Richard Pryor

Iconic Comedian/Actor: Richard Pryor

As African American men, they feel showcasing such an important story in an unapologetic way and to a mainstream audience—is exactly how the comedic icon would have done it.
What can Pryor fans and people coming to see Unspeakable expect to take from the play? “James channels the energy and spirit of Richard. That’s a special thing to be able to do. He might not be likable but he was outrageously charming and through all of the works that he did, he was able to connect with people. James as an actor embodies this—the audience are the riders and he is the conductor.”

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