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Theater Thu May 23 2013
Being the child of an uber celebrity certainly presents unique and extraordinary challenges--and when sharing the parent's famous name is added to the spotlight, scrutiny, lofty expectations, and endless comparisons are inevitable. For singer and actor Richard Pryor, Jr., notoriety as the son of one of the world's most legendary stand-up comedians and entertainers is unavoidable, but he certainly understands that it all comes with the territory. "It's something that you try to escape," said Pryor. "I tried to escape it but it's there--it's in you--it's a part of you."
Pryor makes his Chicago stage debut this weekend in Lipstick Goes on Last, a "fierce farce about alternative families, friendships, and fidelity in the 70s;" here, he talks about growing up with his famous father, inheriting the "entertainment gene," frustrations with Hollywood, and the important message the show has for audiences.
You are an entertainer who both sings and acts, who also has a very recognizable name; does having your father's name make things easy or difficult for you?
The name may open some doors, which it has, but I always tell people that without the talent to back it up, you're just doing something. I'm able to say that I am talented in my own right and I am my own person that way, and no, I don't do the humor or the comedy my dad did, but I have my own humor and comedy that I do that's a part of me. And that makes me, me.
Were you and your siblings encouraged by your dad to pursue a career in the entertainment business?
Growing up, I was always in school plays, singing in gospel choirs in Peoria and in other productions, so it's always been a part of me, but there was a time in my life when I went in the opposite direction as far as performing, working in the corporate world and things like that. But when my mother passed in 2003 and my father passed in 2005--it's hard to explain--but it was like a release. I could finally do what I always wanted to do and never wanted to be at a point to say "I wish I would've tried this" or "coulda shoulda woulda." I'm older now and people say you can't have a career when you're older, but I'm gonna give it all I have because this is what I desire and it's in my heart. And I know I can reach a lot of people and touch a lot of peoples' lives as far as what I can do.
You were in show business consistently but stepped away for a spell, only to return full time in 2005, the year your father passed away. Did his death renew your interest in performing?
Actually it did. There was an event in New York City at the Improv and they were naming the main room after my father. I went there for the event (they flew me out from Peoria) and I ended up singing. This guy was demanding that I do comedy and I said "I do not do comedy and I will not do comedy" because I did it some years ago and I didn't enjoy it. I went out and got a track and sang "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" and when I sang, [after] the response that I received, I said, "You know what, I really do have talent and I'm going to come back out here." I went back to Peoria and I only had $300 on me. I came back to New York and that was it.
Growing up with and accompanying your dad means you've been connected to show business for quite some time. What do you think of the climate of the industry now versus back then?
Of course there will always be strides that we've made but still, especially as an African-American, I still look at the industry as a little jaded as far as the way things are handled. And even within our own culture and in films, I get so tired of seeing the same people in every single film. Normally, you see the exact same African-American actresses and actors in films and I say, "Who's gonna give these other people an opportunity and a chance to prove themselves and see their potential?"
Lots of black actors and actresses, in some instances, do in fact mention their limitations in Hollywood...
No one steps up to the plate and allows these people, including myself, to be seen in a way where you can say, "Hey, they're talented as well." You get burned out--for example, take Queen Latifah. I have nothing against her and her performances, but why does she always get "that" role? There are other people out there. What about India.Arie, you know, like with the Nina Simone film? Why wasn't she considered for that? Zoe [Saldana] is a beautiful woman, but she's not "Nina Simone," no matter what you do or what kind of prosthetics you put on her. Why not just find an actress that can fit that and who has that passion and soul? Those are the things that frustrate me with Hollywood. Granted, you see more of us in films now, but you have to look at the type of roles we're still playing.
These days, the word "legend" is often randomly tossed around; however, when it comes to your father, I'm not sure you'd find anyone, anywhere, who wouldn't agree that this title isn't appropriate. When you're performing, do you ever reflect on the fact that your dad is considered by many, to be one of the most revered entertainers in history?
That's a good question. I've always been humble for one thing, but even I look at all the accolades and what people think of my father, and I don't think even he understood what type of man he was in the comedy world.
I mean, I think he would think that he was good, but I think he would just be blown away by the way people react as far as his comedy, you know, being voted the number one comedian of all time and all that. He was just this skinny black kid from Peoria! [Laughs]
But you and your siblings certainly have to be aware of his impact, right?
Being out there, seeing and meeting people and hearing what they have to say about my father--even on Facebook, [I see] how people have been touched by him--by jokes that he's told--and how he's gotten them out of hard times and how they would just put on one of his albums or watch one of his films and just get comfort by that. It's overwhelming at times, you know, walking in someone shoes--but I would never even try to fit in my father's shoes. But me--I have something to offer, too, as far as being the "son of," and I am able to show my talent and what I have to offer to the world and maybe someday I'll be able to touch somebody's life.
You're making your Chicago stage debut this weekend in Lipstick Goes on Last at The Den Theatre. The show tackles lots of heavy issues: adultery, alcohol abuse and more. That's a lot happening there...
Oh, we've got everything in this--it's like a big jumbled bowl of a jumbled mess. It's so messy and good! The play was written by Cheryl Thomas and produced by 3 Squares Productions and I also jumped on board as co-producer.
The title is very attention-grabbing--how did it come about?
It previously had a different name when they performed it a year or so ago--it was called Dressing for Our Lives. So we thought, "What can be catchy?" Suzy [Brack] remembered some words that were spoken in the play, "lipstick goes on last," because the main character, Meredith, constantly tells her young daughter this when she applies makeup and when she's doing it wrong--that's where the title come from.
And the story?
The play takes place in the 70s: You have Meredith and her husband, who is a psychiatrist, and then their young daughter. Meredith is an alcoholic who is prim and proper, but she is a stone drunk. There's Rita, her best friend, and I'm James, Rita's husband. And then there's Vicki who's a friend as well, and her husband Bobby. My character is really in love with Bobby but because of that time period, I am secretly in love with him, and am torn between the things that I want but I cannot actually have. It's a triangular mess. It's funny, wonderful, and dark, and I love the role.
What message do you think audiences will take away from this show?
I think it would be tolerance and respect for each other, and also knowing that we can love everybody and that there should be no division as far as who you can love. Also, that you can come together through thick and thin that you can still stick it out and knowing that through hardship, pain and sorrow, there's still victory.
Lipstick Goes on Last opens Saturday, May 25th at The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee; the show runs through June 23rd with performances Thursdays through Sundays at 7:30pm, and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $30 and are available online; for more information, call 773-398-7028.