Written and Performed by Khalil Muhammad; Directed by Marcus Naylor
Produced by The Collective-NY
Part of the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival
Off Off Broadway, Solo Show
Runs through 8.27.16
VENUE #7: Under St. Marks, 94 St. Marks Place
by Elizabeth Kipp-Giusti on 8.24.16
Khalil Muhammad in Pryor Truth. Photo by Rebecca Brillhart.
BOTTOM LINE: Pryor Truth features a spectacular performance by Khalil Muhammad as Richard Pryor’s alter ego Mudborn. Full of bawdy humor and references, this show is like watching Richard Pryor in person—and also provides a thoughtful insight into the impact that Pryor had on the world.
Richard Pryor may have become a household name, but he started it all in a whorehouse in Peoria, Illinois. That’s not a judgment on my part—Pryor himself made a point to share this bizarre origin story in his own act. Pryor Truth keeps the spirit of irreverence and truth telling alive in a jaw-droppingly uncanny performance by Khalil Muhammad. From the first moment he walks out onstage, Muhammad becomes the mustached comedian, capturing Pryor's physicality and unmistakable vocal cadence perfectly. Muhammad introduces himself as Mudborn, Pryor’s alter ego who served as a recurring character in his stand-up shows. A wino philosopher born in Tupelo, Mississippi, the handkerchief-wielding character weaves bizarre, surrealistic narratives that skirt the line between outrageous and endearing. He also is a blatantly racist stereotype. But that was the point of Pryor’s comedy—forcing his mostly white audience to come to terms with their own prejudices.
Muhammad’s performance is truly remarkable, capturing not only Pryor’s irreverent wit but also his underlying warmth. The show vacillates between obscenity-heavy sex jokes and moments of genuine tenderness, including one powerful moment in which Mudborn recounts the death of his own son. Tonally, the show then bounces back to its prior level of frenetic engagement, ultimately building to a moment of tangible pain and suffering while lighting a match, referring to the infamous accident where Pryor lit himself on fire while using drugs. Through the narrative created by the show—surreal as it is—it becomes starkly clear how many insurmountable barriers Pryor had to overcome in his career. Mudborn, reflecting on it all, says sadly, “Star has to be surrounded by darkness in order to shine bright.”
Pryor Truth emerged from The Collective NY, a group of professional artists who share responsibility to create emotionally truthful, socially relevant, and thoughtfully accessible theater. They are also committed to creating an ongoing ensemble, a rarity in the present moment of theater. This show makes a strong argument for project creation through group development, as every technical aspect of the show works in thoughtful harmony with Muhammad’s performance. Director Marcus Naylor, projection designer Laura Malseed, and sound designer Olivia Gemelli manage to create a number of worlds during the show, including a smoky comedy club, a Baptist revival tent, and a performative intimate space. In a black and white video projection, the real Pryor is seen singing “Nobody Wants You When You’re Down and Out.” He is young, with no sign of his iconic mustache yet, and wears a Bill Cosby-type pullover sweater. He looks skinny, tired, but deadly serious. The video is an incredibly powerful window into how Pryor must have felt during those early years of his fame, where he served the racist and limiting expectations of white, suburban America. It is a smart choice for the show, casting the heavier second act in important context.
Mudborn refers to Pryor as “the greatest comedian of our time,” shining a spotlight on the concept of greatness and impact. This leads into a beautiful final moment of the play: Muhammad’s body eases, his voice relaxes, and he finally speaks as himself, reflecting on the important role Pryor served for him as a young black man growing up in a racist society. “We met in truth,” he explains, showcasing reverence and unbridled passion for the man. His spot-on impression that evidences deep study is touching and powerful to witness.
Pryor Truth never makes excuses for the incendiary (literally and figuratively) comedian; he is portrayed as a complicated and troubled man, whose explosive entry into stardom acted like a crucible, burnishing his shine to a blinding glow but burning him up in the process. The show does an excellent job of being honest about Pryor’s id-like impulses, focusing on the ways in which he broke boundaries and seemed to rewrite the rulebook about American culture. Just like Pryor captured our hearts, Pryor Truth captures him.
(Pryor Truth plays at VENUE #7: Under St. Marks, 94 St. Marks Place, through August 27, 2016. The running time is 1 hour 25 minutes. Performances are Sat 8/13 at Noon; Thu 8/18 at 8:45; Mon 8/22 at 4:45; Thu 8/25 at 4:45; and Sat 8/27 at 8. There is no late seating at FringeNYC. Tickets are $18 and are available at fringenyc.org. For more information visit mrkhalil.com/pryortruth.)
Pryor Truth is co-developed and performed by Khalil Muhammad. Directed by Marcus Naylor. Co-developer and Executive Producer Victoria Dicce. Projection Design by Laura Malseed. Sound Design by Olivia Gemelli. Production Stage Manager Laura Malseed.