To say Rain Pryor had a complicated childhood doesn’t come close to being an understatement. She tells her funny, harrowing, poignant and ultimately uplifting story in her one-woman show “Fried Chicken and Latkes,” a production of the Jewish Women’s Theatre at the Braid Theatre and Art Gallery in Santa Monica.
She had a biracial, bicultural upbringing in a dysfunctional and broken Beverly Hills home, the daughter of a famously troubled black father — groundbreaking comedian Richard Pryor — and a white, Jewish mother — go-go dancer Shelly Bonus (later an astronomer) — who believed she was a black militant.
Rain was born in 1969, during the social upheavals of Woodstock and race riots, on the day Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Her grandparents escaped Nazi Germany, and her grandfather, a talent manager, was an early fighter for integration, taking on the Mob in Las Vegas to give Sammy Davis, Jr. a ringside table when blacks weren’t permitted that privilege. Even so, her Jewish grandmother worried how she would fare in a racially divided world.
Richard’s grandmother, Mama Marie, ran a brothel, “the whorehouse on Cherry Tree Lane,” and ruled the Pryor household. She wasn’t thrilled when Richard married a white girl. “Richie always had a nose open to the white stuff,” she says through Rain, alluding to Pryor’s love of cocaine and white women.
Richard Pryor was renowned for his love of drugs, hookers and children: he happily produced six but did not take much responsibility for them. He and Shelly broke up when she came home and found him in bed with three other women.
He famously tried committing suicide by burning himself following the death of his beloved grandmother. Rain was 12 then and at age 13, tried to kill herself by putting a plastic bag over her head after her mother called her a “kurva” (Yiddish for whore) because of the provocative way she was dressing.
Rain was six years old when she was first called the “n” word by a schoolmate. Fighting back by biting him, she was suspended. Her mother, aka “the Jewish Joan Crawford of Beverly Hills” marched into the principal’s office and lambasted him for kicking her out instead of punishing the boy who called her names.
Rain portrays these all family members in a thoroughly convincing way: you forget you’re watching her and think you’re seeing them. The show began as a cabaret act in New York, and she still sings powerfully, in Hebrew prayers, jazz and gospel numbers. Under the guidance of director Eve Brandstein her cabaret show has been crafted into a tight, dramatic and inspiring 75-minute show.
We follow along as she moves in with Richard, and later as he’s diagnosed with the multiple sclerosis that ultimately took his life. Rain became an ambassador for the disease as a speaker in support of those affected with and by it.
Although Rain was the very first biracial child on television, on the hit ABC series “Head of the Class,” I first encountered her as a formidable presence on a 1998 Showtime series far ahead of its time, called “Rude Awakening,” about an out of work, alcoholic ex-soap-opera actress (Sherilyn Fenn), struggling with her demons to stay sober. Rain played her lipstick lesbian drug addict friend so powerfully that I never forgot her performance.
I can say the same for this show; you’ll find out more about how she came to conquer her own demons, moving to Baltimore and becoming a highly evolved, divorced single mother, who reenacts some her mother’s more favorable personality traits with her vibrant young daughter.
This how has been sold-out so far and has been extended through June 3. And while you’re at The Braid, go see the small, but lovely art exhibition, “Exile: The Sephardic Legacy,” and “Exile: Kisses on Both Cheeks,” a play exploring the legacy of the Jewish expulsion from Spain during the Inquisition. For tickets and more information visit www.jewishwomenstheatre.org.
SEEDS OF LIFE
I receive a lot of press releases and for various reasons, some are immediately consigned to PR heaven. But when images as beautiful as Santa Monica artist Joshua Abarbanel’s catch my eye, I have to share them.
Abarbanel’s recent expeditionary residency at the Global Seed Vault in the Svalbard Archipelago (Spitsbergen, Norway) inspired his latest show, “It’s Only Natural,” on view in Eagle Rock through April 14 at TAJ ART Gallery.
Svalbard may very well hold the key to our planet’s future. Some very forward thinking scientists headed by conservationist Cary Fowler, recognizing that our planet is in potentially deep trouble due to global warming (in spite of the deniers), created a secure seed bank buried deep in the Arctic Circle to duplicate other gene banks that might be in jeopardy in case of global, climate or political crises.
Abarbanel has created astonishingly beautiful wooden wall sculptures, inspired by seeds and spores, that take on the appearance of the miniscule and the infinite either at the microscopic level or from an aerial perspective; they are intricate works, inspired by fractals, accretive formations and the Fibonacci sequence, illustrating how disparate parts can come together to make a whole in beautiful and startling ways.
Details on TAJ ART can be found here: https://www.tajartinc.com/e-x-h-i-b-i-t-i-o-n-s and to see more of Abarbanel’s work, visit: https://www.joshuaabarbanel.com.
Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, now retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications. Contact her at email@example.com.