Inspired by Richard Pryor, 'Unspeakable' starts Chicago run
Disclaimers accompany most of the advertising for the new play "Unspeakable," which begins a five-week engagement starting Tuesday at Chicago's Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place. It's billed as "A dramatic fantasia" inspired by the life of the late actor and comedian Richard Pryor.
The warnings start with the content. Because Pryor was known for rough language in his standup routines, the show isn't recommended for anyone younger than 16. There are also many shocking biographical details of Pryor's life, which began in a brothel operated by his grandmother in Peoria.
Then, there's the legal disclaimer: "This play is in no way supported, endorsed or created by, nor does it in any manner emanate from, Richard Pryor, his estate or successor(s)."
"It's like a fever dream inside the mind of Richard Pryor, that's how we see the play," said James Murray Jackson Jr., the star of "Unspeakable" and co-author of the piece with director Rod Gailes. "It's a very nonlinear play, but it does cover his life from his childhood to the bulk of his entertainment career from about 1969 to 1983."
Without authorization, however, the show can't even use Pryor's photo.
"Those are things we found out very early on even when we were writing back in 2000," Jackson said.
Nonetheless, Jackson and Gailes still felt that they could tell a compelling theatrical story by examining Pryor's troubled life and amazing career while working around his trademark material. The play starts near the end of Pryor's life, when he was stricken with multiple sclerosis. He died in 2005.
It's been quite a gestation process for the show, which first came to mind for Jackson in acting classes in the late 1990s since so many people told him that he looked like a young Richard Pryor.
Jackson won a best actor award for his portrayal of Pryor in an earlier incarnation of the play at the New York International Fringe Festival back in 2005. And despite a previously intended 2012 production of the play at Chicago's Royal George Theatre, which was dropped when an investor backed out, Jackson is happy to see "Unspeakable" make its professional debut in Pryor's home state.
Jackson has also been impressed by the Chicago-area acting pool that turned out to audition for "Unspeakable." That included six-time Jeff Award-winning actress E. Faye Butler ("Caroline, or Change," "Ella"), who was cast as Pryor's grandmother.
"I think a lot of people were really shocked when I came in to read for the role," said Butler, who intended to take the fall off after her recent acclaimed run in the comedy "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" at the Goodman Theatre. "I found it intriguing, and I love new work. It doesn't matter what it is. Anytime somebody is doing something brand new, it always piques my curiosity."
Butler says she never sought out recordings of Pryor's standup work, mostly because she personally couldn't get past his extreme language. She preferred the comic choices he made in his film and TV acting work.
"He was funny to me in that stuff," Butler said. "When I did finally hear a lot of his standup, I always wondered why he had to speak that way. But I'm learning why he had to speak that way in the course of doing this show."
Butler hopes that the show will move on to other markets. And though she warns the show "isn't for the faint of heart" and to "leave the kids at home," she hopes Chicago-area audiences will take to "Unspeakable."
"They really haven't had a full-scale production, so this will be new for everybody across the board," Butler said. "I think it will be good that it's in Chicago because this is an honest theater town and our audiences tell the truth with their reactions of what they like and don't like. That's why so many want to come here to try out new work."
"Unspeakable"Where: Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut St., Chicago, (800) 775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday; through Sunday, Nov. 8
Rating: Recommended for mature audiences only