New Digital Archive, “Richard Pryor’s Peoria,” Takes You Inside the Dark, Lively World That Shaped the Pioneering Comedian

By Scott Saul:

Richard Pry­or is a leg­endary com­ic, and for good rea­son. He had extra­or­di­nary gifts as a mim­ic, sto­ry­teller, phys­i­cal come­di­an, satirist, and impro­vis­ing actor — gifts he brought togeth­er in an act that had the dan­ger­ous elec­tric­i­ty of an unin­su­lat­ed wire. Mean­while he estab­lished a feed­back loop between his act and his per­son­al life, mak­ing use of all those stage chops to draw com­e­dy out of a life that was painful­ly full of self-sab­o­tage, may­hem, and var­i­ous forms of abuse.

It was my task, as Pryor’s biog­ra­ph­er, to probe the leg­ends of his life, start­ing with the vivid sto­ries he told of his for­ma­tive years in the red-light dis­trict of Peo­ria, Illi­nois. In his stage act and rem­i­nis­cences, Pry­or relat­ed how he’d been raised in a broth­el by a grand­moth­er and father who worked, respec­tive­ly, as madam and pimp, and how he had both suf­fered at their hands and learned from them. He told, too, how he’d made his way in a larg­er world that, while bru­tal, was also touched with grace — that grace he felt when he ven­tured onstage, at school or in a club, and start­ed to find him­self as a per­former. 

 young pryor

Ear­li­er biog­ra­phers had won­dered how much Pry­or had embell­ished his past in build­ing his act around his life sto­ry. In my research I dis­cov­ered a moth­er­lode of mate­r­i­al — fam­i­ly pho­tos, court records, news­pa­per arti­cles, and more — that not only cor­rob­o­rat­ed the out­lines of Pryor’s sto­ry but also filled in the pic­ture and gave it a his­tor­i­cal depth. I could see, for instance, how Pryor’s taboo-bust­ing com­e­dy was root­ed in his child­hood envi­ron­ment, a black work­ing-class under­ground where taboos were bust­ed on a reg­u­lar basis, and hypocrisies called to account. You can watch a short, four-minute film above that sets the sto­ry of the young Richard and his fam­i­ly against the back­drop of “Roarin’ Peo­ria.”


Ulti­mate­ly, I dis­cov­ered so much in my research into Pryor’s for­ma­tive years that I felt it couldn’t be con­tained in the book I was writ­ing (in which Pryor’s first two decades in Peo­ria make up only one of five sec­tions). So I built a dig­i­tal com­pan­ion where you can explore over 200 doc­u­ments from “Richard Pryor’s Peo­ria”. Here you can see, through the young Richard’s report card, how he strug­gled in the con­fines of Peo­ria schools. You can see, through the divorce case of his par­ents, how his moth­er (con­trary to reports that she aban­doned him) tried, unsuc­cess­ful­ly, to steal Richard away from his grand­moth­er and father, and from the red-light dis­trict itself. You can see, through the paper trail of Richard’s for­mi­da­ble grand­moth­er Marie, how she fought — with wil­i­ness and blunt force — against her abu­sive hus­band and against the sys­tem of Jim Crow. And you can vis­it the var­i­ous scenes of Richard’s youth, from his family’s tav­ern and the com­mu­ni­ty cen­ter where he first took the stage to the some­times rau­coussome­times styl­ish clubs where he got his start as an enter­tain­er. 

Richard Pry­or was an excep­tion­al human being — a genius who changed the rules of com­e­dy in Amer­i­ca — and the web­site aims to show how the seeds of that genius were plant­ed. At the same time, it sug­gests how Pryor’s life sto­ry makes rich­er sense when set against larg­er his­tor­i­cal back­drops: the sto­ry of how the Midwest’s pre­mier “Sin City” became, dur­ing the Cold War, a lead­ing “All-Amer­i­can City”; the sto­ry of how black neigh­bor­hoods were demol­ished in “urban renew­al” efforts (Pryor’s child­hood home was itself tar­get­ed by a wreck­ing ball so that Peo­ria might be linked to an inter­state high­way); and, most of all, the sto­ry of how black Amer­i­cans, while locked into seg­re­ga­tion in the Mid­west, defied that sys­tem in inven­tive and force­ful ways.

This post is by Scott Saul, the author of Becom­ing Richard Pry­or (Harper­Collins), now out in paper­back.  He teach­es Amer­i­can his­to­ry and lit­er­a­ture at UC-Berke­ley, and also is the host of the Chap­ter & Verse pod­cast. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @scottsaul4.

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