Writer, comedian, actress, singer, producer
Rain Pryor is an author, entertainer, and actor best known for her thought-provoking explorations of her life as the daughter of famed African-American comedian Richard Pryor and Jewish entertainer Shelly Bonis. Pryor has distinguished herself as a versatile performer having produced a critically acclaimed biography, two musical albums of jazz standards, and a one-woman show that mixes comedy and heartfelt drama.
Rain Pryor was born on July 16, 1969, in Los Angeles, California. Her father, Richard Pryor, met her mother, Shelly Bonis, while Bonis was performing as a dancer at a Los Angeles club. Pryor says her parents' relationship started as love at first sight, but by the time Pryor was six months old, her parents had divorced and Pryor was living alone with her mother in Beverly Hills.
Pryor was raised by her mother, who worked at a variety of jobs to support herself and her daughter, including performing as a clown in a local circus and working as a professional photographer. "She's brilliant … it's disgusting!" Pryor said to Contemporary Black Biography (CBB), joking about her mother's enviable ability to succeed in any of a long list of disparate vocations and interests. Later in life, Bonis began working as an astronomer, consulting with organizations such as the National Aeronautics and Space Association. Pryor said that her parents' brilliance made her feel a need to be brilliant herself and to succeed at whatever she chose to do.
Besides her mother, Pryor was raised by her maternal grandparents, Herbert and Bunny Bonis, whom she described to CBB as "wonderful … typical white, middle-class grandparents." Pryor began having regular contact with her father when she was about four years old, and after that time her life was divided between two different worlds. Though she lived with her mother, visits with her father introduced her to a different lifestyle. She recalled from a young age witnessing her father's struggles with drugs and alcohol and his tumultuous, often troubling personal life. Though punctuated with drama, Pryor's childhood was also filled with the love and support of her family.
Educated at Beverly Hills High School
Pryor attended Beverly Hills High School, where she was involved in number of extracurricular activities, including the drama club, the school swim team, and the drill team. Despite her extracurricular interests, Pryor described herself as a "bad student." From around age five, Pryor decided that she was going to be an actor; therefore, most of school was a waste of time. This attitude stayed with her through high school, where she told CBB, "When I would skip class, they would call to the drama department, because I would go and hang out there."
Pryor's high school drama department was her home away from home, and she played in a number of school productions. She did her first solo performance in high school, a dramatic monologue from the play Nuts, just before the Barbara Streisand film hit the theaters in 1987.
Besides working as an actor, Pryor also demonstrated an ability to sing and write music. In 1986, shortly before graduating from high school, she was asked by representatives from Motown Records if she wanted to record an album. Though she was willing to do it, her father staunchly refused, believing that the label executives were trying to take advantage of her. Though Pryor refused the offer, she was determined to make singing and music a large part of her life.
Starred in a Popular Television Comedy
Following high school, Pryor enrolled in community college to pursue an associate's degree in psychology. "I always thought I would either be an actor or a psychologist," Pryor told CBB. "People always seem to open up to me." However, in 1988 Pryor attended a general audition for the television series Head of the Class, which ran from 1986 to 1991 on the ABC television network. At the audition, Pryor was asked to perform a monologue of her choice, so she decided to write an original presentation. Her performance, in which she portrayed three separate personalities, was a hit with the evaluators, who asked her to return the next day for an additional performance. After her second interview, Pryor was asked to appear on the show.
Pryor's first appearance as Theola June "T.J." Jones on Head of the Class was intended to be a one-time guest performance. However, when Pryor received a standing ovation from the audience, the show's producers asked her to stay on as a recurring character. Pryor remained part of the cast from the third until the final fifth season, and even became one of the most popular characters on the program. "It was the stuff Hollywood dreams are made of," Pryor told CBB.
At the time, Pryor did not realize how fortunate she had been; having received the first job she auditioned for, she said she "didn't realize that other people were really struggling trying to find work." Pryor went from making minimum wage as a retail sales associate to making almost $7,000 each week and feeling very much like Hollywood royalty. Unfortunately, as Pryor told CBB, "When the show ended, I went broke, so I went to the stage."
Worked in Theater and Rehab Clinics
Pryor had a number of appearances on various television programs, including an after-school ABC television special called Frog Girl, about a student who refused to dissect frogs in class. Unable to return to television full time, Pryor dedicated herself to stage acting and appeared in a number of theatrical performances around Los Angeles. Many of her productions featured Pryor's singing voice, including the Who's rock opera Tommy at the La Hoya Playhouse.
It was during this time that Pryor became more deeply involved in producing her own work. She produced and performed in a production of Bernard Shaw's Joan of Arc, which she called Joan.
At a Glance …
Born Rain Pryor on July 16, 1969, in Los Angeles, CA; daughter of Richard Pryor and Shelly Bonis; married Kevin Kindlin, 2002 (divorced 2006). Education: Beverly Hills High School, 1983-87.
Career: Singer and actor in various productions, 1988—; Head of the Class, actress, 1988-91; Fried Chicken and Latkes, writer/performer, 2002—; published Jokes My Father Never Taught Me: Life, Love, and Loss with Richard Pryor, 2006.
Memberships: Actors Equity Association; American Federation of Television and Radio Artists; Screen Actors Guild.
Awards: Invisible Theatre, Goldie Klein Guest Artist Award, 2004; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Best Female Performer Equity, 2005.
In 1998, Pryor began working as a drug counselor in Beverly Hills. The decision to enter counseling was prompted by watching her father struggle with addiction and recovery throughout her childhood. Pryor started as an assistant and was eventually leading drug counseling classes. She worked first in Beverly Hills' celebrity clinics, but found that she did not prefer the clientele, "I couldn't stand working with celebrities that were messed up," Pryor told CBB. "Like, if I have to take you for a manicure after you've just smoked crack?" During her time as a counselor, a number of tabloid journalists inaccurately reported that Pryor was seeking treatment for drug addiction.
Performed a One-Woman Show
In 2001, Pryor developed and performed Europa, a one-woman show at a friend's dinner theater in Los Angeles. The show was such a success that she decided pursue a larger audience. After marrying counselor Kevin Kindlin in 2002, one of Kindlin's contacts offered Pryor the opportunity to perform her show to an audience of potential financial backers. Pryor's performance received a standing ovation, and she was offered the chance to open her show at the famed Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills.
Pryor's show, which she called Fried Chicken and Latkes, has run continuously since 2002 and has been performed on national and international tours. Pryor's blend of songs, dramatic monologue, and comedy was a critical hit and was, for Pryor, a culmination of her experiences dealing with her relationship with her mother, grandparents, and father. Though Pryor's exploration of her life as "half Jewish, half black," is at the core of the show, her diverse talents are also featured as the show features a number of original songs.
Pryor's father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 1987, but many treatment options were unavailable until after 1993. As Pryor watched her father's disease progress, she became involved with MS organizations to help spread knowledge of the disease and obtain funding for research. In 2003, Pryor was asked to be a spokesperson for the MS Society, a capacity that she served in for several years, during which she gave as many as fourteen speeches a year to potential funding groups and for educational purposes.
Wrote Biography and Left Los Angeles
Pryor visited her father regularly from 2003 to his death in 2005. Before her father's death, Pryor began working on her biography Jokes My Father Never Taught Me: Life, Love, and Loss with Richard Pryor, a telling and intimate look at her life and relationship with her family. She finished the book nine months after her father died and said to CBB, "The end was painful … like giving birth. I cried a lot at the end." Pryor's book met with critical acclaim when it was published in 2006, and was rereleased in 2007. Though Pryor had been approached by publishing companies wanting her to write a tell-all biography about her father, Pryor routinely refused. "I didn't want to write that kind of book," she told CBB. "I wanted to write a book about a father and a daughter and forgiveness, and that father happens to be Richard Pryor."
In 2006 her marriage to Kindlin ended. After that, she felt it was time to leave Los Angeles, so she moved to Baltimore, Maryland. Then she traveled abroad to perform the show Divas, which featured Pryor singing jazz standards in the style of famous singers such as Nina Simone and Billie Holliday. The show was a major success with international audiences in China, Ireland, Australia, and England. A live CD that featured music from her show was released after her performances in London.
In Baltimore, Pryor and Yale Partlow, her romantic partner, were expecting a child in April of 2008. Pryor told CBB she was busy preparing for motherhood and family life. In addition, Pryor hoped to continue working on stage and was working on the production Pryor Experience, which featured a blend of drama, comedy, and jazz music and debuted in November of 2007. For the future, Pryor planned to continue writing and recording music, work in the dramatic theater, and start her own MS foundation headquartered in Maryland. Pryor believed that she has taken strong lessons from her family and experiences. "You have to live an authentic life," she told CBB. "If you're living life and you're screwing up: change. There are no excuses. But if you're realistic about your dreams, don't give up and it will happen for you."
Rain Pryor Live in London, Cahoots Theatre Company, 2006.
Fried Chicken and Latkes (play), 2004.
Jokes My Father Never Taught Me: Life, Love, and Loss with Richard Pryor, Harper Collins, 2006.
Austin American-Statesman, January 13, 2007.
Boston Herald, April 29, 2006.
Cincinnati Post, March 28, 2005.
Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, England), April 13, 2007, 11.
People, April 17, 1989, p. 131.
Weekend Argus (South Africa), January 6, 2007.
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Rain Pryor on October 23, 2007.
—Micah L. Issitt
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