Chicago Theater Review: UNSPEAKABLE (Broadway in Chicago at the Broadway Playhouse)

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by Lawrence Bommer on October 14, 2015

in Theater-Chicago


UNSPEAKABLE_James Murray Jackson, Jr. and E Faye Butler_Justin Barbin PhotographyTwo big ironies attach to the new show at the Broadway Playhouse in Water Tower Place. First, it’s called Unspeakable but it’s not afraid to say anything: Shock value is built into every scene. Second, it couldn’t be less funny, though it depicts Richard Pryor, one of the great clowns of any century. It’s a one-way tour through an angry jester’s personal hell. Unspeakable is often unbearable.

Conceived and directed by Ron Gailes and co-written with James Murray Jackson Jr. (whose comic is one long, lacerating impersonation), this mean-spirited two-act takes place in “the Mind of Richard Pryor” just before his death 10 years ago at 62. As one character says, “Your pain is your comedy”–and, wow, the pain comes through. At the same time, the few laughs that survive this pity party come at the expense of a guy who calls himself part kamikaze, part phoenix and, earlier, part pimp and part ho.

UNSPEAKABLE__Ginneh Thomas_Justin Barbin PhotographyThe latter analogy comes from his horrible childhood in Peoria, seen, like everything here, in flashbacks from an endless stream of consciousness propelled by free association (and freebasing too). Pryor’s grandmother (Chicago favorite E. Faye Butler in imperious fettle) ran a brothel where his hate-filled mother (Kierra Bunch) worked as a prostitute and his brutal father (Ronald L. Conner) as a procurer. Focusing on Pryor’s career from 1967 through 1982 (and oddly treating his self-immolation from cooking crack cocaine as the culmination of his career), the pell-mell action leaps about over 150 minutes. We see Pryor as a deeply wounded man who made people laugh when all he wanted was to cry (and toke, snort, snarl, binge and shag). From the very first comic bit he created (in which he merrily fucked a squealing piglet), he was determined to turn a class clown into Gene Wilder’s hilarious sidekick. But you wouldn’t know that here.

UNSPEAKABLE_James Murray Jackson, Jr._ Justin Barbin Photography

Jackson’s Pryor is a magnificent mess. He’s haunted by the fear that he’ll never earn the respect he craves but then rejects–and he’s taunted by a Rat (Taryn Reneau) who mocks his self-destructive attempts to escape a cycle of harm. Sexually abused as a kid (which left him ambivalent about homosexuality), he mistreats the wives (Ginneh Thoma and Reneau) who he thinks only want him for his money. Trapped on the “white Ferris Wheel,” he uses the N-word as a weapon to release rage and seek sympathy.

UNSPEAKABLE_Chris Amos_Justin Barbin Photography

And then there are the crackups–his obscenity-laden rants as a Berkeley D.J. at KPCA, his walking out on gigs, his rocky apprenticeship under the unspeakable Bill Cosby (strangely at the start he even calls himself “Richard Cosby”), his attempt to be as outspoken as Lenny Bruce (though lacking any kind of political agenda), his spiritual rejuvenation after a trip to Africa–and his passion for the pipe. For Pryor, it seems, nose candy was the perfect sacrifice for the Bitch Goddess Success: He worshipped every night until, in the ultimate claim for attention, he torched himself.

UNSPEAKABLE_Taryn Reneau, James Murray Jackson, Jr_Justin Barbin Photography

Broadway in Chicago’s world premiere makes sure we see the suffering behind the hilarity, the loneliness behind the laughter. Unfortunately, numbed by the nastiness, we don’t see the humor–and there was plenty! Even the supposed comic bits, when Pryor indulges in scatological dialogue with a white hand puppet, is too cruel to convulse. It’s not edifying to see a damaged child turn famous and stay broken.

UNSPEAKABLE_James Murray Jackson Jr, E Faye Butler, Taryn Reneau_ Justin Barbin Photography

photos by Justin Barbin Photography

Broadway Playhouse
Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut
presented by Broadway in Chicago
ends on November 8, 2015
for tickets, call 800.775.2000 or visit Broadway In Chicago

for info on more Chicago Theater, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Robert Ancha October 15, 2015 at 12:50 pm

Richard died on December 10th 2005; he was 65 years old not 62. I saw the play and I thought it was a great depiction of what made the man who he was. Yes it’s a dark play, but the actors did a great job. I am not sure how you could make any of this funny: drug abuse, sexually molested as a child, raised in a whore house. The show was well done; I highly recommend seeing it.


Jason Rohrer October 15, 2015 at 9:54 pm

“I am not sure how you could make any of this funny”
Pryor managed. You know any happy comedians?


Mark Strong October 22, 2015 at 7:31 pm

This play answered a lot of questions for me regarding the intimate details of Richard Pryor’s life, the acting was superb, in fact, the acting was so good that at several points I thought I was really watching and listening to Richard Pryor. I understand that a Disney type of ending is preferable to many, but, for those of us who have laughed and enjoyed Richard Pryor the comedian all these years, it was refreshing to get to know Richard Pryor the person, and it felt like he was right in front of me.


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