Richard Pryor Jr. goes drag for his stage show ‘Lipstick Goes on Last’
BY DAVE HOEKSTRA firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @cstdhoekstra May 23, 2013 9:02PM
Richard Pryor Jr., son of the comedy legend, is appearing in "Lipstick Goes on Last" at the Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. He posed in his '70s costume from the show. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times
‘LIPSTICK GOES ON LAST’
♦ Saturday through June 23
♦ The Den Theatre,
1333 N. Milwaukee
Updated: June 25, 2013 6:07AM
Richard Pryor’s first wife, Patricia Price, died in 2003.
Richard Pryor died in 2005.
And then was Richard Pryor Jr. was reborn.
Pryor Jr. was the firstborn of six Pryor children from seven marriages. He was the only offspring of Richard and Patricia Price. Now 51, the Peoria native makes his Chicago stage debut in “Lipstick Goes on Last,” a comedy that has its world premiere Saturday at the 60-seat Den Theatre in Chicago.
“When my mother died and when my father died, I felt a release,” Pryor Jr. says during a heartfelt conversation at a North Side diner. “I can breathe. It triggered something. If my mother was still alive, I know I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing. I would want to be around her. Things are devastating to you, but they are also a blessing.”
Pryor Jr. bears a striking resemblance to his father.
His wide eyes of innocence also display a guarded intensity. The medium-high pitch of his voice draws in a listener. Pryor Jr. walks into an unfamiliar restaurant with headphones playing Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life.” He knows where he is going.
Pryor Jr. resides in New York City. He moved there after his father died. He had $300 in cash.
“People assume that because I’m his son, I’m wealthy,” he says. “When I’m going for a job, I need the work. The name may open some doors, but if I don’t have the talent I’m not going to get the job.”
Pryor Jr. slept on an army cot in the basement of the Downeast Arts Center in the Lower East Village when he came to New York. He got a part in the play “Crack House,” which was part of the International CringeFest.
“Because I didn’t have any place to go at night, I’d clean up and stay in the theater,” he recalls. “I had a hot plate where I would make my food. I had a little burner in the back. I would wrap myself around the cot. The rats would come out.
“And I was determined not to let anything stop me.”
Pryor Jr. followed in his father’s hardscrabble footsteps. The talent whom Bob Newhart called “the seminal comedian of the last 50 years” left Peoria for New York in 1962, just after Richard Pryor Jr. was born.
“He told my mother he would be gone three months.” Pryor Jr. says. “It was three years.”
The son and the mother stayed behind, markers in a rearview mirror.
A graduate of Peoria Heights High School, he sang in gospel choirs and still sings under the direction of Bill Gulino, former musical director for the doo-wop group Platters.
“Peoria is an interesting city,” Pryor Jr. says. “They didn’t embrace my father a lot. They wanted him to open the Civic Center [in 1982]. People in Peoria complained so much Kenny Rogers ended up doing the opening. But now they are building an 8-foot bronze sculpture of my father.”
Preston Jackson’s sculpture will go up in downtown Peoria. Jackson is from Decatur, the hometown of Richard Pryor’s father. Last fall, area sculptor R. Rashad’s “Olmec Pryor,” a bust of Pryor, was unveiled at the entrance to the Carver Center, where Pryor debuted as a young boy. Pryor Jr. was on hand for the unveiling.
Pryor Jr. spent the first 18 years of his life near his mom in Peoria.
“It was a lot different than it is now,” he says. “We had the pool halls, confectionary stores. I was 5 years old when I met my dad.”
Smoke from a distant fire.
“He was always busy doing things, and I never knew why until I got older,” Pryor says over a grilled cheese sandwich and a glass of white milk. “It was hard. I’d see his movies in theaters, and people would watch me more than watch the movies. My dad never saw me perform unless he came to a high school talent show. My friend just found a clip where he mentioned that on Johnny Carson. Johnny asked him about me, ‘Does he have any talent?’ And he said, ‘No.’
“He was joking.”
But Richard Pryor Jr. does not laugh.
Growing up as Richard Pryor Jr. was a “double-edged sword.”
He explains, “You had to worry if friends were your friends because of your name or if they genuinely liked you. I’ve been in instances where I say, “Hi, my name is Richard.’ and they walk away. Then 15 minutes later, you hear somebody whisper, ‘That’s Richard Pryor’s son.’ And their attitude is different. Those are the things I have to watch.
“My father did tell me, ‘If I had known I would be in this place now, famous, I would have never named you Richard.’ I was born Rodney Clay Pryor. I was a preemie, a six-month baby. My father secretly changed my name to Richard at St. Francis Hospital [in Peoria] without my mother knowing about it.”
Pryor Jr. joined the U.S. Navy in 1981. He was stationed in Norfolk, Va.
He was out with fellow sailors at a bar in Edinburgh, Scotland, when the DJ played Jennifer Hudson’s “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from the film “Dreamgirls.”
“I started lip synching it,” he says. “Soon the crowd separated back and started watching. The next night I did it again, on stage, not in drag. I got back to Virginia and decided — are my contacts still in? — to start perfoming. Again, the response was really good.”
Pryor Jr. debuted his act at the College Cue Club gay disco in Norfolk.
“I loved doing it,” he says. “I did it from the heart. I felt the song. I was very theatrical.”
His favorite number was covering Pat Benatar’s 1981 hit “Hell Is for Children.”
“I recorded the theme from ‘Mommie Dearest,’ ” he explains. “I was dressed in a wig and a robe and put white Noxema all over my face, just like Joan Crawford. Another guy was dressed like a little girl. And I did the wire hanger scene and went into the Pat Benatar song. Guys came out and put me in a straitjacket. It was acting, it wasn’t like, ‘You’re a drag queen.’ You’re put into a category. People assume because I did that that I wanted to be like that all the time: ‘Did you ever think of getting a sex change?’ Hell, no! I do it because I like to perform.”
Pryor Jr. says his father was “all right” with his drag performances.
“My mother wondered what she did wrong to cause this,” he says. “She got insulting mail. Eventually she realized I had nothing to do with that.”
Pryor Jr. was married in 1992 and divorced in 2007. He and his ex-wife, Diane, have one son, Randise, 22. And a grandaughter, Giavonna, who turned 2 on May 6.
After “Lipstick Goes on Last” closes, Pryor Jr. will resume working on his television pilot “Pryor Knowledge,” starring himself in his actor life with reality TV director Dante Liberatore.
He will appear in drag in segments of “Lipstick Goes on Last.” He co-produced the play with Chicago-based 3 Squares Productions.
Pryor Jr. plays a 1970s still-in-the-closet husband who is in love with a friend’s husband. He explains, “You’re a black man, you stay married and that is what you do because of the time you are in. You hide everything. You are pulled in both directions. I’m excited about doing this in Chicago. A lot of my family and friends have never seen me perform.”
In 2009, Pryor Jr. appeared as a drag queen in the indepdendent film “College Debt” (a.k.a. “My Guaranteed Student Loan”) with the late Celeste Holm and Randy Jones, the cowboy from the Village People. He sang the title song, “Life Is a Drag.”
“I cannot separate acting and singing,” Pryor Jr. says. “It all comes from the heart. You follow that tune from a heartbeat.”
It is the heartbeat that pounds within the child of every new man.