UNSPEAKABLE: Inspired by Richard Pryor

A comic genius, talented actor and an admittedly broken man, Richard Pryor reached a pinnacle in his stand-up and film career that laid a solid foundation for generations to come.

Now, UNSPEAKABLE, a “dramatic fantasia” inspired by his life and accomplishments, will take audiences on a journey spanning more than 60 years of his existence during a five-week engagement at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place in Chicago.

Co-written and directed by Rod Gailes OBC and James Murray Jackson, Jr., Unspeakable has been described as “an unflinching, fun house perspective on the life and times of a comedic genius, [where] Pryor faces situations that forever shape and scar his sensitive soul.”

We spoke with Gailes and Jackson about the research and key components of telling Pryor’s story, plus plans to take the show on the road.

JET: With so much material in Pryor’s arsenal, how did you approach condensing his story for the stage?

Rod: That’s the challenge of it! When you have somebody that’s such a public figure, there’s so many things that the general public already knows about him. So it takes really digging behind those public events to figure out the moments before and after that tie those things together. What are the things that we know and why are they exciting and how does that weave into an experience that you can take the audience through in a night of theater? That’s the challenge of writing and directing a vehicle like this. But you want to make it as special and unique as possible.

JET: Richard Pryor was probably the most provocative and important figure during the 70s. His stories, while comical, served such depth and graphic details of his life. As an actor, how deep and dark did you have to go to embody the essence of Pryor on stage?

James: That’s a great question and one of the things that we really focused on when developing Richard is being able to channel the essence of him and not shy away from all the parts of who he was. I really come to it with no judgement. I don’t think that there’s a way you can portray any character if you’re judging who they are. I never got a chance to meet him but I’ve also felt that he never really got that experience of love in his life. I don’t think he connected with people on an individual basis in that manner – in a deep, meaningful way. But I think through comedy, he was able to catch it and get that immediate gratification that can be passed off as love. So I think he got it there but once he got off the stage, it was back into the night.

JET: Was there anything that translated over or was deleted from the hit version of this piece back in 2005 when it hit the Fringe Festival?

Rod: Oh yeah! When you’re developing something that you’re planning on it being a commercial theater property, you either have to have a lot of money or a lot of time and we did not have a lot of money. (laughs) So, what we really did was, with the initial exploration, we wanted to take that to the next level each time. We had a lot of great developmental points. We did some developmental work in New York and then at the Apollo, a couple of years ago. That was really great and ties in to the legacy of Richard. Some kids don’t even know who Richard Pryor is but they don’t realize it. They’re experiencing the impact that he had on pop culture, movies, comedy. So we’re creating that experience where, whether people know him or not, like or love him or not, they can come in that theater and experience this man’s life.

JET: Gailes, as the writer and director, what intrigued you the most about Pryor’s comedic delivery and life?

Rod: When James came to me with the idea of doing it, he had been developing the character. We have a kind of church and state separation in our approach to Richard. He has really done the depths of developing the man and the energy behind him. My job, as co-author and director is to try to make that experience feel universal but still really special. He was unapologetically Black. The topics he discussed from the late 60s to the 80s revolutionized what you could get away with saying, especially as a Black man in America. To put out a record ‘ That [N-Word] is Crazy’ and get a Grammy for it? That changed something. It also helps us to know that mainstream audiences want what’s real and it can be purely and clearly rooted in the Black experience, American experience and really the Global experience because that’s the culture.

JET: Politics of the N-Word. This is a conversation that will continue to be discussed and cause controversy. It’s also a word rooted in the politics and social commentary of Richard Pryor. Is that addressed in this production and if so, was it done unapologetically or with some reservation?

Rod: (Hesitant laugh) We’re not pulling any punches.

James: It’s uncompromisingly Black.

Rod: So much so, that a good creative friend of mine, entered a reading at one point and said ‘It’s amazing! But White folks aren’t going to let you put that on Broadway.’ (laughs) So, we were very confident that if you understand something about Richard’s politics and points-of-view, that you would be pleasantly surprised that we go there.

James: My wife told me one day, ‘No one should be mad because you equally offend everyone.’ For us, it was also a matter of honoring Richard and writing from a place of truth and following that truth wherever it led us. Really trying to get to a true understanding of what the man was about, what he went through, how he went through it and what came out on the other side. It’s just unwavering real, raw, funny, sad and I think that’s what people respond to. It’s a rollercoaster ride.

JET: I’m excited for the experience! Unspeakable is hitting Chicago for a five-week engagement. Are there plans to travel with this production?

Rod: Our goal right now is to really create the biggest blast we can in Chicago and we’re on the road to doing that. But, I will tell you this …our set and production is built for tour and ready to go other places. We’re looking forward to other steps in this journey!