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Jewish Journal

Black (and Jewish) Is Beautiful

by Naomi Pfefferman

August 28, 2003 | 8:00 pm

Rain Pryor

Rain Pryor

Rain Pryor solemnly chants the "Kol Nidre" as the spotlight reveals her silhouette -- wearing a hilariously oversized Afro wig.

"What's the big deal if I'm black and a Jew?" she says.

She answers the question in her irreverent solo show, "Fried Chicken & Latkas," which describes her tortuous journey toward self-acceptance. Pryor -- the daughter of comedian Richard Pryor -- virtuostically transforms into characters such as her great-grandmother, a brothel madam who taught her to tame her "in-between hair" and to cook fried chicken. Adopting a Brooklyn accent she becomes Bunny, her Jewish maternal grandmother, who taught her to speak Yiddish, light Shabbat candles, make brisket and, of course, latkes.

The singer-actress also morphs into the first-grade teacher who said she couldn't play the lead in the school play because "there are no black Raggedy Anns."

"I cried for days after that," Pryor, 34, said in her Canon Theatre dressing room.

She's had to deal with the same frustrations as an adult actress, which is one reason she's developed "Fried Chicken." At a time when autobiographical monologues can launch actors to stardom (think John Leguizamo and "Sexaholic"), she's hoping to showcase her unique talents and prove she's capable of more than the TV roles for which she's best known.

Her strategy seems to be working. Pryor -- who played a junkie lesbian on Showtime's "Rude Awakening" -- moves "Chicken" to the Comedy Store next month.

"I'm hoping the show will help people see me for who I am," she said.

Her background is singular. Her mother, Shelley Bonus, was a go-go dancer and her father was a wild new comic when they met at Los Angeles' Stardust club in 1965. Thereafter, the enthused Bonus donned a blonde Afro wig and turned her apartment into an "African Heritage Museum," according to her daughter. In the play, Bunny describes her shock upon entering the apartment and seeing "a black velvet Jesus nailed to the cross; I think I even saw his eyes glowing."

Pryor believes neither side of the family was initially thrilled when the couple married in 1968: "At the time, it was hard to explain an interracial marriage, let alone a biracial child," she said.

It didn't help that, after separating from her husband in the late 1960s, Bonus moved her daughter to Beverly Hills for the superior school system.

"It was a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, yet crosses were burned on our lawn," Pryor said. "At school, children said, 'You're a n----.' But on my father's side of the family, 'n----' was a term of endearment, so while I didn't like the word, I was also called it when I visited my dad's house."

While Pryor saw her father only sporadically when she was a child ("He was busy being a genius," she said), she was riveted by his revolutionary, expletive-filled act. "I'd share it in show and tell," she said. "The teacher would say, 'What did you learn this weekend,' and I'd say, 'I learned to say m----------!' and I'd get in so much trouble." Equally confusing was her stint at a Reform Hebrew school where classmates told her there were no such thing as black Jews.

"Because it was so hard for me to be accepted into Judaism, I pushed it away," she said.

Pryor took solace in her acting and dancing lessons.

"Performing allowed me to escape into someone else's world," she said.

By age 18, she was playing tomboy T.J. in ABC's "Head of the Class"; within a few years, her identity crisis had caused her to descend into alcoholism and a series of abusive relationships.

It wasn't until the 1990s that she got sober, read a slew of self-help books, engaged a therapist and took a counseling job at Beit T'Shuvah, the program for recovering Jewish addicts.

"I have to credit [the program's] Rabbi Mark Borovitz for allowing me to feel Jewish for the first time, and really opening up that world," she said. "I started to study the Tanach and to learn the songs of Debbie Friedman and Shlomo Carlebach. For a time, I thought I would become a cantor."

Instead, she began writing a series of autobiographical songs and sketches that became "Fried Chicken & Latkas."

While she was initially nervous about her family's response, relatives on both sides said they loved the show. She's performed parts of it for her father, who has battled multiple sclerosis since 1991 and is now completely paralyzed.

Grandma Bunny called the show "beautiful. I've seen Rain perform before, but this was like she came out of her shell and she was Rain, her own self."

Although Pryor culturally identifies as black and Jewish, Judaism is her religion. She has been married for a year to a Catholic man who hopes to convert and to raise their children Jewish. In the meantime, "Fried Chicken" has helped her integrate her diverse identities.

As she says at the end of the show: "I've come to love my family and my heritage."

"Fried Chicken" plays at the Canon Theatre Wednesdays, 8 p.m., through Sept. 17. For tickets, call (310) 859-2830.

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