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Many People on Stage

Rain Pryor turns her mixed heritage into an acclaimed one-woman show

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People tell me I'm good at playing everybody else but myself," says Rain Pryor, who is bringing her irreverent autobiographical one-woman show, Fried Chicken and Latkes, to Tucson under the auspices of Invisible Theatre. "They say that any time I become anybody else, I'm great. Luckily, there are eight or nine characters other than me in this show. The piece is about finding yourself, and I guess I'm still looking."

Pryor is an actress and singer most familiar as a regular on the TV shows Head of the Class and Rude Awakening. She's the daughter of an African-American stand-up comic--no less than Richard Pryor--and a Jewish go-go dancer. Pryor grew up keenly aware of being both black and Jewish, but other people couldn't figure out how to classify her. And because she couldn't be pigeonholed, she never quite blended in with a single group.

"I had big hair and olive-colored skin," says Pryor, "and in California, then most Jewish people were white European Jews; only later did anybody who looks like me come along, when we got the Iranian Jews with skin darker than mine. I couldn't fit it, so I was a chameleon. I acted tough around the tough girls, but I was sweeter like the girls in pleated skirts and polo shirts when I was with them. Now I don't have to decide which to be."

But it makes great fodder for a stage show. The main characters, Pryor says, are her mother and her two grandmothers.

"My mother is a multifaceted genius," she proclaims, not revealing until later that her mother is sitting a few feet away, listening to her end of the phone conversation. Even so, despite the designation "go-go dancer" in the press materials, she's described on Rain Pryor's Web site as an "astronomer/writer/lecturer."

"She's a strong protector," Pryor asserts. "And when I was growing up in the 1970s, she wasn't your typical Jewish mother; she was artistic and smart. She wasn't hiding out, making matzo ball soup. She taught me how to confront life on life's terms and be an upstanding human being.

"My grandmother Bernice was a typical Jewish grandmother and still is, except now I've made her famous. My other grandmother was very strong and ran a whorehouse. So one taught me how to hustle at pool, and the other taught me how to make matzo ball soup and how to take care of people. What more could I want?"

Indeed, Pryor seems pretty lucky to have grown up in glamorous Beverly Hills, rather than, say, Alabama.

"Oh, I don't know," she says. "We had crosses burned on our front lawn in Beverly Hills, too. You have to look at the time frame, from 1969, when I was born, into the early '70s. We were just barely getting past the time when there were signs over drinking fountains saying 'whites only.' You didn't see signs like that anymore, but the mentality of people was still like in the deep South. And Jewish people were afraid, too, because they'd been persecuted for so many years, and that fear sometimes meant they didn't trust black people, either."

OK, so despite her ZIP code, Pryor still had a taste of the worst of both worlds. But where does her father fit into all this?

"He's a part of my piece, but he's not my piece," she says. "In my life growing up, he was there, and then he wasn't. It was both good and bad, and sometimes it was good and bad in the same day. It was always back and forth, on and off, and even when it was on sometimes, it was off. It was the women elders who dominated my life and influenced me in many ways. Which would probably explain why I was so afraid of women for so long, because these women were so strong."

So what does Pryor's mighty mother think of Fried Chicken and Latkes?

"She thinks it's great, but it could be better," says Pryor with a characteristic giggle.

The show includes a fair amount of music, most of it written by Pryor herself. "The style depends on the character associated with it," she says. "One of the songs I stole from Cabaret, but I changed the words. Another one I wrote myself, and I created the interlude music."

For her trouble, Pryor has been nominated for an Ovation award--the L.A. version of the Tonys--and just picked up four nominations for the NAACP theater awards.

Meanwhile, Pryor's conflicting introvert and extrovert tendencies continue to generate an interesting and reportedly very funny stage show, full of characters who are and are not Rain Pryor.

"I wouldn't say I have multiple personality disorder," she says. "But I'm definitely many people. And I'm still Rain in all of them."

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