Being Richard Pryor’s Daughter
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Being Richard Pryor’s Daughter

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

Children of celebrities find it notoriously difficult to forge their own paths. Rain Pryor, daughter of the peerless comedian, Richard Pryor, is still working out her relationship to a largely absent father who alternately adulated and abused her. In “Fried Chicken and Latkes,” which opens on Saturday at the Actors’ Temple Theatre, Pryor explores her dual identity as the daughter of a Jewish hippie and her larger-than-life African American father.

Rain Pryor, 43, was born to Shelley Bonis, a blonde, Brooklyn-born comedy writer whose father, Herbert Bonis, was Danny Kaye’s longtime manager. Bonis was Richard Pryor’s second wife; he quickly divorced her and went on to marry four other women (one of them twice), leaving Rain to be raised mostly by her maternal grandparents.

Richard Pryor, who is widely considered the greatest comedian of the 20th century for his melding of vulnerability and rage, came from an extraordinarily dysfunctional family; his mother was a prostitute and his maternal grandmother, who raised him, owned a brothel. Perhaps because he was himself sexually molested as a child, he had shockingly few qualms about exposing his own six children to his life-long sex and drug addictions.

In “Fried Chicken and Latkes,” which runs 70 minutes, Pryor performs 10 different characters as she both follows in her father’s footsteps and tries to overcome his abuse — abuse that she recalls in harrowing detail in her 2006 memoir, “Jokes My Father Never Taught Me,” written with Cathy Crimmins. After graduating from Beverly Hills High School in 1987, Pryor starred as T.J. Jones in the ABC series “Head of the Class” as well as in the Showtime series, “Rude Awakening” (in which she played a “lipstick lesbian” drug addict.) An accomplished blues and jazz singer, she has starred in the British tours of “The Billie Holiday Story” and “Ella, Meet Marilyn.” (She also recently appeared in the HBO film “Game Change,” playing Sarah Palin’s make-up artist.) She has performed “Fried Chicken and Latkes,” in which she also sings, in venues ranging from JCCs to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

In an interview, Pryor told The Jewish Week that even though her father loved to see her perform, she “had a lot to be angry about” in dealing with him. “His world was very unhealthy,” she said, “and his children were raised to put it all out on the table. We didn’t know what not to share. Actually, I was angriest at the women for taking advantage of him, and at him for allowing that to happen.”

Pryor, who faced rejection from both the Jewish and black communities, has always felt “not black enough to be black or white enough to be white.” But with Barack Obama in the White House, she reflected, her own 4-year-old daughter “won’t grow up in that world that I grew up in.” It was a world that her father, for all his faults, helped to sensitize to the appalling consequences of racism. “People miss him and come to see my show,” his daughter said. “Doing it kind of keeps him alive.”

“Fried Chicken and Latkes” opens on Saturday at the Actors’ Temple Theater, 339 W. 47th St. Performances are Mondays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. and Sundays at 4:30 p.m. It runs through early September. For tickets ($39.50), call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.

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