Eli Meir Kaplan
Rain Pryor stands outside the Strand Theater on Charles Street in Baltimore’s burgeoning Station North Arts and Entertainment District clutching a cup of coffee as if it were her closest friend.
Her hair—an exotic, cascading flower in full bloom—is cinched into a ponytail. Resting behind dark frames, her soulful eyes spy a young boy walking hand-in-hand with his mother. Pryor’s freckled face beams. Her own daughter, Lotus, just turned 4 on April Fool’s Day.
Luminous smile notwithstanding, if the 43-year-old award-winning actor/director/writer/comedian/singer/educator looks beat, she’s come by it honestly. It’s the second night of rehearsal for Well, the Tony-nominated play Pryor is directing at the Strand, a theater company showcasing female performers, writers, directors, and designers.
Since January, Pryor has been named the Strand’s new artistic director; taught her ongoing acting course at CENTERSTAGE; directed two theatrical productions, The Exonerated in Baltimore and Diary of a MILF (Mom I’d LOVE to Follow) in Chicago; appeared as Sarah Palin’s makeup artist in HBO’s Game Change; and maintained a brisk schedule crisscrossing the nation with her stand-up routine and public-speaking engagements.
And Pryor’s also just returned from the Off-Broadway debut of Fried Chicken & Latkes. In this critically acclaimed one-person show, which has evolved over the last decade, Pryor inhabits a dozen characters from her own life, including her mother, Shelley Bonus, a blond, blue-eyed, Jewish go-go dancer who was convinced she was a black militant, and her father, the late—and iconic—Richard Pryor.
It was in 2005 that the younger Pryor, while visiting friends in Baltimore, learned her father had died of complications from multiple sclerosis (today, Rain Pryor is a national ambassador for the MS Society).
Fed up with “Holly-weird” and still grieving, she soon packed her car and drove 3,000 miles to put down roots in Charm City.
“I had a mission: I’m going to create the life I want here and this is what it’s going to look like,” Pryor says.
“It’s going to be on my terms. It’s going to be working with people I want to work with. It’s going to create that idea of community, and it’s going to feel comfortable.”
On and offstage, Pryor is effervescent and irreverent, passionate and fierce. Politics, sex, motherhood, relationships (she is married to a Baltimore City police officer)—regardless of the topic, Pryor tells it like it is.
In her show and memoir, Jokes My Father Never Taught Me: Life, Love, and Loss with Richard Pryor (written with Cathy Crimmins), Pryor speaks candidly about her “schizophrenic” childhood, a splintered existence where she was never black enough, white enough, or Jewish enough.
As she jokes, “I was proud, but felt a little bit guilty about it.”
Pryor also chronicles the demons that haunted her father. To audiences, Richard Pryor was a trailblazing genius, but he was also a man prone to self-destructive tendencies, an abuser of women, drugs, and alcohol.
“So, yeah, he was misogynistic, mercurial, unpredictable, and violent,” Pryor writes. “But he was also my daddy, and sometimes, when he held me close, I looked into his big sad eyes and I knew he loved me.”
While she had early success with roles on the hit ABC sitcom Head of the Class and later in the Showtime series Rude Awakening, Pryor never quite fit the Hollywood template.
“It’s Hollywood that kind of points out that you’re different. ‘You’re ugly, you’re not this, you’re not that.’ I had casting agents tell me, ‘Why don’t you get a face job so you don’t look too much like your dad.’ Really?”
Two years ago, Pryor jumped into stand-up comedy, a genre she had resisted for obvious reasons. Her father, in fact, had encouraged her to get into the family business when she was 18.