In this unflinching look at his life, comedian Richard Pryor remains controversial.
If Unspeakable proves anything, it’s that Richard Pryor still has the power to make people deeply uncomfortable. During several moments on opening night, some pulled from Pryor’s stand-up sets and radio performances, the crowd was noticeably nervous. Now, it is nigh impossible for any actor to pull these jokes off with the same aplomb as Pryor himself, but James Murray Jackson Jr. (who also co-wrote the play with director Rod Gailes OBC) acquits himself fairly well during these routines. No, the nervousness emanates from the material itself. Some of that is Pryor’s words. The rest of it is Pryor’s life.
Billed as a “dramatic fantasia,” Unspeakable delivers on both counts, with uneven results. The play, which is not endorsed or supported by the comedian’s estate, leans heavily into the darker aspects of Pryor’s life. His mother (Kierra Bunch) was a prostitute, and he was raised by her brothel's madam (E. Faye Butler), who also happened to be his paternal grandmother. Pryor was molested as a child, and later in life developed a love affair with cocaine that led to his infamous freebasing accident. He was also a violent chauvinist.
At times Unspeakable is so dark as to feel almost unwatchable. This isn’t helped by the play’s more fantastical elements: Stuff like a dead rat, played by Taryn Reneau, which haunts Richard throughout his life and a flowing, hallucinatory timeline just end up muddying the waters. They don’t heighten the material; they only confuse it. Pryor’s story and his stand-up were dramatic enough; no fantasia is needed.
Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place. By James Murray Jackson Jr. and Rod Gailes OBC. Directed by Gailes OBC. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 30mins; one intermission.