Rain Pryor experienced something of a split-screen childhood: On her mother’s side, a traditional, middle-class, Jewish-American life; on the side of her father – the late comedian Richard Pryor – an exciting and often unstable Hollywood existence. Growing up with two families, two races, two lifestyles, and two distinctly different cultures, Pryor gleaned a unique perspective that she’s channeled into her own career as an actress and singer. She struggled early on, but in her mid-30s her one-woman show, Fried Chicken and Latkes, won widespread attention and a number of awards. She recently added a cabaret act, Pryor Experience, to her repertoire, and in 2006 published her memoir, Jokes My Father Never Taught Me: Life, Love and Loss with Richard Pryor. Pryor, now 39, is also a multiple sclerosis ambassador (her father died from the disease in 2005). Her daughter Lotus was born in spring 2008.
As a biracial child you were viewed and treated as an outsider by both the Jewish and the Black communities. What did you see when you looked in the mirror?
I think I just saw me. I didn’t really have a concept that I was black or Jewish – it’s something you don’t understand until you’re much older. And I grew up at a time when there weren’t kids like me. Mind you, the early 1970s was about 30 years after Holocaust, so among the Eastern European Jews there a sense of having to own our identity. Now I go to temple and I see black kids, Asian kids, everybody.
How did your outsider’s perspective shape the friends you chose, and the kind of friend you became?
As a friend I certainly developed a sensitivity, though in other people who were outsiders I’ve seen it go the other way. The friends I chose varied throughout my life. I think as an adult my range of friendships reflect my view of the world – all different shapes, sizes, ethnicities, and all respectful of each other’s beliefs. I’ve always had a very open perspective, and I intend to pass that on in my family that I’m now growing.
How do you think you, and your life, would be different if you’d had two black parents – one of them still being Richard Pryor?
It would have been a different kind of struggle. I look at my other siblings whose parents are both black, and each comes with their own past. I look at my daughter, Lotus, and her Dad is black and native American, and now she’ll grow up in a world where a black man can be president… When I was growing up that was never a possibility.
What was your first reaction the moment Barack Obama became a presidential candidate?
I cried! I cried for two days. And I wished my Dad could have been here to see it – this is the world he and my Mom thought they were creating by having me, and all of a sudden, boom – it’s a reality. The doorway is so open now. Anybody can be president – black, white, Jewish…
In spite of all your talent and ambition, acting roles often eluded you because you didn’t fit Hollywood types. How did that struggle impact your self-image? Were there moments when you wished to be typical?
I think many a time I’ve wished I looked like everybody else. When you look at Hollywood, their job is partly to entertain but partly to get you to buy into whatever they’re trying to sell. I’m 39 years old now and I finally get it, finally feel comfortable. I’m at a place where it’s not about impressing somebody else. I choose to create my own pathway.
You did land a regular role on ABC’s popular Head of the Class when you were just 18. Was that experience what you thought it would be?
None of it was what I expected it to be, and the reason was that I went on to be just a guest star, and then they asked me to be a series regular. I didn’t go through the process of callbacks that other people do. The same thing with my show: It wasn’t an audition process I had to go through – though it was unexpected! The Showtime series Rude Awakening was the first time I went through that process, and that was almost 20 years after Head of the Class.
Early in your career, when acting wasn’t panning out, you worked other jobs – construction crew, psychic hotline – to make ends meet. Do you still maintain other pursuits?
Now I teach acting, and I sometimes speak on issues of diversity. Before that I worked as an alcohol and drug counselor in L.A. at a program called Beit T’Shuvah. That was the first time I was ever in an environment, with a rabbi and young Jewish people, where it wasn’t questioned, “Is she Jewish?” They just accepted me. And with that I was able to embrace more fully my Judaism. At first I actually wanted to be a cantor, but then my show took off.
Was performing at The Comedy Store in Los Angeles a surreal experience, completing the first father-daughter team to headline there?
Yes – and it was surreal because I wasn’t doing the traditional “let me tell you a few jokes” show, I was doing Fried Chicken and Latkes in a comedy club and it was the first time I’d changed the show to sort of a stand-up format. Even with the two drunk firemen heckling me in the audience, it still went well – they laughed, I laughed… I love being on stage.
Do you ever feel your father’s presence while you’re up there?
I do now. I do transform my material for different events – like for a Jewish organization I’m not going to use four-letter words – but in general my comedy is “blue comedy” like his was, meaning it has adult content.
You’ve described both of your parents as erratic and sometimes abusive. Did that make you more or less certain about the mother you would be?
I already knew what kind of Mom I was going to be, because I was ready for it. I don’t know everything, obviously; I’m learning as I go. But Yale and I wanted to have a baby together and I think the preparation of wanting to be parents, and the kinds of parents we wanted to be, makes the road a lot clearer.
How did you manage to forgive your parents’ mistakes?
I think I just got to a place where I can accept them. You just grow up and realize your parents are who they are. And when you have your own kids, you have a choice: You can either be like them, or not.
Has becoming a parent changed your perspective on your own tumultuous childhood?
Absolutely – I would never put my child in the situations I put myself in. I’m much more protective of my life, and so is my partner, Yale. As far as my parents are concerned, I am more guarded, but family is still very important.
What is your favorite memory of your father?
Fishing – going fishing. Usually in Atlanta or Hawaii.
Why did you resettle in Baltimore, so far from the L.A. environment that has always been your home?
Exactly. It’s so far from Los Angeles. I don’t feel a need to be there – I can still create the kind of career I want and not have to be in it. And I think Baltimore offers a more stable lifestyle; there’s a very strong Jewish community here.
Did the values you gleaned in the Jewish half of your upbringing play a role in your recovery from substance abuse?
To put it this way – I never really was an addict, so it’s not like I really had to recover from anything. You just turn 23 and you think, ‘I don’t want to become a statistic,’ so you change your life. When you’re addicted, you can’t do that. People read that I was a drug counselor and about my parents and they assume I was like any other Hollywood child, but I don’t fit that picture.
Prostitutes were a regular fixture in your father’s home. What did that teach you about women, as you were growing into one yourself?
It adds to your self-esteem issues, because that’s how they were presented. And my Dad was abusive toward them, so that also played a role. On the other hand I had my grandparents on my mother’s side, who were not of that lifestyle. I think my perseverance in not wanting to be that way allowed me to rise above. Statistically I should be a messed-up kid – strung out on drugs and just like my Dad. But I guess there’s just something in me that doesn’t want that, and I don’t have patience for other people who do. I have compassion, but it’s hard for me to have patience.
Finding yourself in abusive relationships after experiencing domestic violence as a child, did you see a connection between the two at the time?
When you don’t have self-esteem you attract those situations and those people in your life, until you learn to define yourself by your own rules. I started to notice a pattern when I was in my 20s. And again, you get to a point in your life where you say, ‘I don’t want this in my life. What can I do to change it?’ Lately I’m realizing that somebody sometimes has to have that strength for you.
Your show Fried Chicken and Latkes is as popular as ever. How has your family reacted to it?
My family loved it. I think they get it for what it is, and they love it. My grandparents love it, they wish there was more music because they like to hear me sing. My mom wishes probably that I didn’t talk about her in it. My Dad’s side of the family has passed away so they never got to see it. My brothers and sisters who have seen it, they love it. Especially my sister who also grew up black and Jewish – it’s her story too.
Did they react as warmly to your memoir?
Yes, but not my mother – she was really upset. No one wants their life exposed. And what am I going to do, write about my family and not put her in it? I chose to do it the best way I knew how without dredging up all the dirt. I know in my heart I did my best to be mindful of how she may feel.
How did you know when you were ready to write the show, and later, your memoir Jokes My Father Never Taught Me?
The book I always wanted to write, it was a matter of finding the right person to help me write it and tell the story I wanted to tell. My solo show started off as a cabaret act. I hate to sound airy-fairy, but I call it “divine inspiration” because it took me only a month to write. Four years later it has changed. But I have to feel completely inspired to work on it now; I don’t just sit down and write.
Which Jewish dishes were your favorites when your grandmother used to cook for you?
I love brisket. And I like potato kugel – Yale, on the other hand, is not a fan of my potato kugel, and I’m okay with that. And of course I have all my grandmother’s recipes.
Are Jewish foods part of your regular culinary repertoire now?
Yes, I love to cook Jewish food. For Rosh Hashanah dinner I made brisket on the second night.
Name one valuable nugget of wisdom you gleaned from each of the elder women in your life – your grandmother Bunny, and “Mama,” your father’s grandmother.
With my grandmother Bunny, it was really about just being kind, and also that family is all you’ve got. With Mama: Just be truthful.
What you are working on now?
Teaching my acting classes, and touring – I just had a date in Philadelphia with my other show called Pryor Experience, which is jazz-blues and comedy. And of course being a Mom – that is my full-time job. My baby comes with me everywhere.