Afros and Yiddish and Soul Food? Oy Vey!

By Allison Foilb and Emily Wallen

May 3, 2012


Unsure of what to expect from Rain Pryor‘s autobiographical, one woman show about being Black and Jewish, my roommate and I were worried we might be on the outside of a big cultural joke throughout the entirety of the performance. But with the The Wiz‘s “Ease On Down The Road” welcoming us into the space, and with a title as delicious as Fried Chicken and Latkes to entice us even further, we were excited to see where the next 75 minutes would take us. Initially, I was concerned the show would walk the fine line of stereotypes and racial punchlines, but instead Pryor offered us a unique glimpse into her world where she grew up with black power fists raised alongside glasses of Manichewitz.

Rain Pryor in Fried Chicken and Latkes.

The journey began with Rain Pryor rushing onto the stage, slightly out of breath, brushing her afro from her face and proclaiming that she was almost late because there was a sale at Bloomingdales — immediately putting the audience at ease with her playful exploits of both Jewish and Black cultures. Born into a biracial family ahead of its time, Rain does not try to hold back in introducing the audience to the colorful cast of characters that raised her. The daughter of the late, great comedian Richard Pryor and a Jewish go-go dancer, it is no wonder Pryor can captivate an audience with her electric performance.

Rain’s energy is palpable, and the pulse of the show is kept upbeat by interspersing original music and power ballads that add to the cabaret-like atmosphere of the piece. Nothing is off limits to Rain, even her father’s public drug-addicted past. In fact the tone turned somber each time she began to speak about her father. Beginning with a reenactment of a childhood fight where her mother told her that he would never visit because he didn’t care about her, it was clear that the relationship was a strained one. Still, throughout the show, Rain expressed a fervent love and respect for her father. She told of the first time she saw him on stage, and how she stood in awe of how he had the power to make an entire audience laugh at his persuasion. She spoke of visiting him as he aged, and as his multiple sclerosis became progressively more and more debilitating. And finally, she relived getting the phone call about his passing while she was out of town visiting friends. She spoke with genuine grief about his funeral, and how it angered her that people tried to make light of the situation by cracking jokes, assuming that was what her father would have wanted.

Click to enlarge.

Throughout the course of the show, we not only meet her parents, but also an adolescent Rain Pryor, a girl who grew up with jazz lullabies played for her by Miles Davis and who spent her high school lunch hour attempting to control her Jew-fro and gossiping in the ladies room. We also meet her grandmother, her great-grandmother, her Black friends who introduce her to the step team and the Jewish boys who wanted to date her — hilarious yet poignant characters who are, of course, all brought to life by Rain herself.

Particularly notable were Rain’s performances of her Jewish grandmother and her African-American great-grandmother, who each expressed laughable and familiar stereotypes of the other culture. Curiously, neither seemed to feel as though Rain herself was part of their own culture, always placing her with the other. “Your people,” said her Bubbe while kvetching about the Blacks, and “your people,” mused her great-grandmother in talking about Jews amidst mouthfuls of collared greens. Admittedly, Rain herself didn’t exactly fight the stereotypes of these cultures. She described her great-grandmother as an all-ruling, powerful Black woman that her own grown grandson feared, and she shared the life advice of her Jewish grandmother: “shopping in a sale is a Jewish woman’s orgasm.” Unlike her grandmother, Rain’s mother wasn’t the “typical” Jewish mother. Her father’s grandmother even described her as the “blackest white woman” she’d ever met. Despite occasionally employing tactics of guilt, Rain’s mother was portrayed as a true individual — or a true hippie at least.

While most of her stories rag on the cultural memes of growing up Black and Jewish in the ’70s, Pryor does not discount the racism that she had to face as well. High school is hard enough to face without the internal struggle of trying to establish a cultural identity, and Pryor addresses how she had to figure out who she was in the context of a society that was trying to figure out exactly who they were too. In a particularly eloquent vignette at the end of the show, Pryor explains that in retrospect it was not a matter of figuring out how she fit in, but how everything fit in around her.


About Allison Foilb and Emily Wallen

Allison Foilb and Emily Wallen met at Barnard College in New York City, where Emily studied Theatre and English and Allison studied Neuroscience and Sociology. After graduating in May 2011, they became roommates in a small East Village apartment. They consider themselves in an interfaith-roommate relationship.