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BWW Interview: UNSPEAKABLE's Rod Gailes OBC & James Murray Jackson, Jr.

James Murray Jackson, Jr. plays Richard Pryor and is the co-author and co-producer of UNSPEAKABLE under the direction of co-author, Rod Gailes OBC. UNSPEAKABLE is a dramatic fantasia inspired by the life of comedic legend Richard Pryor.



How has UNSPEAKABLE evolved over the 10 years?

Rod Gailes OBC: We've had time to produce the show, and our current production of UNSPEAKABLE is light years away from where we started with our original production. We had our first big change before producing it in the New York Fringe Festival. When we finished writing UNSPEAKABLE, the play was three and a half hours and had about eighty-six characters no producer could produce it! When we got into the New York Fringe Festival I whittled it down to two and a half hours and made a clerical error and listed the play at ninety-minutes. In a week or so, James and I had to cut down our mammoth script to fit into a ninety-minute slot. And, of course, opening night we had the New York Times watching which I kept that information from James--he didn't need to know.

James Murray Jackson, Jr.: Yeah, while Rod was whittling down the script, I was laying on the floor crying because I was distraught about destroying the play.

Rod Gailes OBC: The biggest challenge was rehearsing the changes with the cast because it's a huge ensemble show. We had to tear the show apart and piece the ensemble work (that had been very fluid) back together in seven days. But in the end, James went on with a fantastic performance, and we've been developing UNSPEAKABLE ever since.


How did you conduct your research to write and direct an entire show about Richard Pryor?

Rod Gailes OBC: Well, the writing is very collaborative. James is a Richard Pryor expert in terms of channeling him and his life experiences and circumstances. My job is to contextualize those experiences and make it connect universally with the audience, but still make it feel like it's relatable for the individual audience member.

James Murray Jackson, Jr.: I spent a lot of time at the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center. Richard Pryor had bits in his comedy about shooting a car with a gun and lighting himself on fire, but the most interesting thing for me was what happened before, and that wasn't written down. That was a point of creativity for us to connect all of those dots and make sense cohesively-not just as a narrative, but as an experience.

How did you two first connect?

James Murray Jackson, Jr.: I met Rod through an audition. He was casting a short film that he wrote, and was producing and directing. I started working with him on the film as a creative collaborator. That's how we first connected.

James Murray Jackson, Jr.


How did you initially come up with the idea to create a play about Richard Pryor?

James Murray Jackson, Jr.: After we worked on the film together, Rod suggested that I work with an acting coach. I enrolled in a class with Susan Batson. We studied an acting method where we had to choose a celebrity character. I had a really big afro at the time, and a lot of people kept saying I looked like a young Richard Pryor. Susan suggested I conduct my research on Richard Pryor's life. I was also asked to write a play about his life. I hadn't written anything at that point in my life and I asked Rod to come on board and help me write. In Rod's mind he wanted it to be a one-man play, but I didn't have any interest. My background was in creating ensemble work and I enjoy working collaboratively.


James, Richard Pryor was an iconic comedian. Do you come from a comedic background?

James Murray Jackson, Jr.: I don't have any comedic training, but I think I'm naturally funny. (laughs) I'm just joking. Richard had a need and desire to fill something and he used comedy as an expression. I understand what that is and I let that express itself. I have tremendous respect for comedians, because it's terrifying to actually get on stage and make a room full of people laugh. My hat goes off to every comedian.


James, how did you prepare to play the iconic, Richard Pryor?

James Murray Jackson, Jr.: My process started in my acting class with Susan Batson. Each week we would have different exercises that was the base of it, but then once we started to write and research it took my work to a whole new level. For me, it's more about channeling Richard Pryor, than trying to imitate him. I have my own process that I go through to connect with his energy. It's a fun process, but it's very scary because his life has a lot of dark moments it makes it interesting and fun to play him.


James, you originated the role of Richard Pryor in 2005 at the New York International Fringe Festival. What has been your biggest challenge?

James Murray Jackson, Jr.: I think the biggest challenge is to find the truth, and not to be afraid to express what the truth is. Richard had a lot of issues to deal with: alcohol abuse, cocaine addiction, physical abuse: and with all of those things...not to judge him. I needed his energy to express itself fully.


What has been your biggest successes playing Richard Pryor?

James Murray Jackson, Jr.: Every time I step onto the stage it's another challenge. There are so many opportunities to continue to learn about Richard Pryor, I don't actually feel like I'm there. There is always something more that I would like to explore playing Richard, so it's new for me and the audience every night. I never want my exploration to end; I always want it to be new for everybody.


OBC, you are involved in both theatre and film. Would you eventually like to produce and direct a movie of UNSPEAKABLE?

Rod Gailes OBC: I think my feet are squarely planted in theatre and film. I truly believe the only reason James came to me to produce Richard Pryor's life as a play was due to the money and resources. We also did not have the time to make a movie exist. It would be fantastic to produce UNSPEAKABLE as a movie because the style and structure of the play can easily cross platforms and would not be in competition with other projects that are happening surrounding Richard's life.

Who are some of your influences?

James Murray Jackson, Jr.-As far as an actor, I am influenced by Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep. Those ones are my two biggest influences. In my personal life: my parents, my wife, and my three boys. I am very grounded with my family and they keep me in check which is absolutely necessary.

Rod Gails OBC

Rod Gailes OBC-I have an eclectic list. My two theatrical influences are George C. Wolfe and Hal Prince. When I was finishing my MFA at NYU I was directing theatre in small studios off-off-Broadway. At the time I thought, "I don't know anybody of influence, and no one of influence knows me", so I did a cold call to the Public Theatre and was given an opportunity to intern there. I was able to watch the work of George C. Wolfe while I was interning. I left directly from the Public Theatre and worked for Spike Lee, who was one of my instructors during my time at NYU. I was hired by Spike after a couple weeks of interning for him in film school. I worked with him for several years and he had been an influence for me when I was in undergrad I always enjoyed watching his work. Spike Lee and George C. Wolfe were two of my biggest influences, but it was Hal Prince's approach to create art in an unapologetic way that truly helped inspire my work. My last influence would have to be Michael Jackson-he has an uncompromising artistry that creates a vision. Michael Jackson's work takes a piece that can feel very niche and refines it to become globally successful. Those are the people and the work that really drive me.


Can you please explain the work of the OBC DreamTheatre?

Rod Gailes OBC: OBC DreamTheatre is about creating repeat experience art. One of my favorite movies is Schindler's List, but I've only seen it twice, because the experience of it is too heart wrenching. I want to create art like Michael Jackson's "Thriller" music video. It may not seem like art at first, but you want to watch it multiple times, and each time you uncover more layers. OBC DreamTheate is about creating art that audiences will want to watch over and over again, whether it's motion picture, straight theatre, or musical theatre. Also, outside of OBC DreamTheatre, I had the opportunity to work with Disney Theatrical on the first national development of THE LION KING, JR. I got to work with children and produce ensemble theatre, which is right up my alley, and secretly Julie Taymor is one of my other influences.


If the audience could only take one message away from the show, what message would you want UNSPEAKABLE to leave?

Rod Gailes OBC: Anything is possible. No matter what life you're living there's always some good in it...if you're open to seeing it.


Do you have anything that you would like to share about the show?

Rod Gailes OBC: The audience has to prepared to be open minded. UNSPEAKABLE is just like Richard Pryor's life dark, exciting, and a whole lot of fun!


UNSPEAKABLE plays at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place (175 E. Chestnut St.) for a limited five-week engagement Oct. 6 through Nov. 8, 2015. Performances run Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 2:00pm and 8:00pm, and Sundays at 2:00pm and 7:30pm. Purchase tickets by calling Broadway In Chicago at (312) 977-1710, or by visiting www.BroadwayInChicago.com.


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