When Richard Pryor was in his comedic prime, he was regularly combating racism, discussing taboo topics and saying forbidden words on stage, much to the chagrin of censors and conservative audiences. Towards the end of the stand-up turned movie star’s life, multiple sclerosis robbed much of his ability to talk at all, which makes “Unspeakable” that much more of a poignant, two-fold title for the Broadway In Chicago show inspired by his decorated yet deeply tortured life.
James Murray Jackson, Jr. in particular is spellbinding as the lead, channeling Pryor’s ghost with authenticity and reverence…
Aptly living up to its promise of “sex, drugs and comedy,” the drama paints a transfixing psychological portrait of a man born to a pimp and prostitute who somehow surmounted such instability to become the most influential topical satirist of all time. “Unspeakable” spends the bulk of its time on his core career years (mainly 1967-1982), but there are countless flashbacks that pop up along the way, including various examples of abuse growing up in his grandmother’s brothel, the lack of a loving family and having to ward off countless fair-weather friends.
Add in crippling drug addiction, a cringe-worthy amount of course language, plus loads of other adult situations, and the play more than warrants its 16 and over rating (if not a little older), though none of these elements appear gratuitous or merely for shock value, but rather, necessary devices to authentically portray the unvarnished story. James Murray Jackson, Jr. in particular is spellbinding as the lead, channeling Pryor’s ghost with authenticity and reverence as the remaining nine players all take immersive ownership of their multiple roles.
Instead of reading like a straightforward tribute to a man who brought so much socially-conscious laughter to multiple generations, “Unspeakable” is perhaps closer to a clinical case study on patterns of abuse and addiction. With that in mind, fans simply wanting to see sketches recreated verbatim won’t find many here and the weight of Pryor’s demons far outweigh the laughs or a light-hearted night out at the theatre.
However, as the program notes suggest, “understanding him helps us understand the human condition,” and in that sense, “Unspeakable” shines an effective spotlight on a cross-cultural need to break the cycles of self-destruction. And at the very least, fans might take home a newfound empathy for this fragile boy from Peoria who lacked a firm family foundation, while also marveling at his resilient celebrity transformation that kept cracking jokes to hold back the tears right up until the very end.
“Unspeakable” continues various dates and times at Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place through November 8. For additional details and ticket information, visit www.broadwayinchicago.com.