James Murray Jackson, Jr. takes the stage as Pryor in Unspeakable

Unspeakable‘s James Murray Jackson, Jr. just kicked off a five-week run playing undoubtedly the world’s greatest comedic icon to date. Unspeakable, which chronicles sixty-one years of Richard Pryor’s 65-year life and dives deeper into his years as a comic, is currently showing at Chicago’s Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place (175 E. Chestnut St.). TICKETS

The role, although intimidating, isn’t foreign to Jackson, as he took on Pryor and his tongue of fire in the 2005 New York International Fringe Festival. His portrayal earned the Festival’s Outstanding Lead Actor Award for his “magnetic lead performance.”

I recently spoke with Jackson on all things Pryor and Unspeakable.

I imagine taking on such an iconic role has to be at least a little bit intimidating.

Ah, Yeah. To say the least. it’s a lot of fun playing Richard, but it is intimidating to the degree that when you look at what he did and what he accomplished as an artist, and when you really sit and just listen to his records, listen to his early work, it’s overwhelming how talented the guy was. You’re like, “wow, this dude was a genius.”

There’s definitely some large shoes to fill, so you want to make sure you do the best you can. At the end of the day we’re having fun. The cast is great, it’s a great script, we’re just trying to do justice by Richard.

To this day, it seems like most comedians say Richard was the best. What was it about him that has people still holding him in such high regard?

If you look at when he actually broke through, early 70s, through the 70s, the country was at a different place. You had civil rights happening, you had Vietnam happening, you had women’s rights, students… free love, black power movement… all these different things came about and there was so much change happening in the country. And he came in right in that pocket.

He was able to say things and do things on stage where comedians who came before him would have gotten arrested for. Had he come about a few years earlier, the laws were different. He would have been arrested like Lenny Bruce. I think Richard came at a perfect time and he wasn’t afraid to say what he wanted to say.

In playing Richard, I imagine you had to do some research and really understand what he went through more than the average fan.

I think so. There’s a lot of prep that goes into getting ready to play Richard. It’s not an easy thing to deal with because there’s so many layers to who he was that I don’t think you’ll ever actually know who he is or what he was really about. And that’s the beauty of portraying him, because there’s always something to learn.


More on Unspeakable – Born and raised in a Peoria brothel owned and operated by his grandmother, Pryor faced situations that forever shaped and scarred his sensitive soul.  With a pimp for a father and his mother a whore, young Pryor’s imagination helps him escape and ultimately leads him to comedy. Unspeakable captures the energy of a man battling success and the demons it invites.

Scott King is a contributing writer for RedEye Chicago. Follow @ScottKingMedia on Twitter. 

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