Lenny Henry to play Richard Pryor – Chortle

New play hits London’s National Theatre in 2020

Lenny Henry is to write and star in a one-man play about Richard Pryor.

Richard Pryor On Fire will open at the National Theatre in London in 2020, in the venue’s 450-seat capacity Dorfman Theatre.

Pryor infamously set himself on fire in 1980 after freebasing cocaine, pouring rum on his body and setting himself alight, suffering second and third degree burns to more than half of his body.

Henry will not be peforming any of Pryor’s material in the play. He told Chortle: ‘I’m a huge fan of Richard Pryor – ever since I heard Is It Something I Said? being played out the big speakers at Tapes Galore on the Edgware Road in the mid 1970s. 

‘I’d never heard a black comedian be so fearless in terms of language, subject matter and raw anger. The audience’s reaction is phenomenal.

‘We know black audiences love to be a part of the show, but it often feels as though Pryor’s audiences know the show better than he does. Of course the big shock for me was actually seeing him perform.

‘The film, Live In Concert, with the horny monkeys and the melancholy but lethal attack dogs, is an epic performance where Pryor channels Chaplin, Lenny Bruce, his father, his grandmother and many others to create a virtual Cathedral of Comedy. He was a don.’

The production is directed by Paulette Randall, who previously worked with Henry on the 2013 West End  production of Fences, and has been developed with Michael Buffong, artistic director of the Talawa Theatre Company, and playwright Ben Power, deputy artistic director at The National, whose adaptation of The Lehman Trilogy is currently playing at the theatre, directed by Sam Mendes.

Richard Pryor on Fire is part of The National’s new season announced today by artistic director Rufus Norris, which also includes a debut at the theatre for Cate Blanchett in When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, and The Thick of It’s Roger Allam in a production of Rutherford and Son.

Henry first let slip that he was working on a Pryor play in a 2014 interview with BBC Radio London.

The actor and comedian previously played Pryor in his 1989 concert film Live and Unleashed, when he pretended to meet all his comedy heroes.

After Pryor’s death in 2005, he said: ‘I started listening to him in 1977, when a guy in a record shop had this album called That Nigger’s Crazy. 

‘Apart from the use of the word “nigger”, apart from the prodigious swearing, I thought, “This guy’s a genius.” He documented every pain, every abuse he’d ever suffered in his life, and he made it funny.’

– by Jay Richardson

Published: 3 Oct 2018

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