- Richard Pryor's Peoria:Footnotes and Fandom
Traditionally, biographers have done their research—rooted around in archives, conducted their interviews, sleuthed for missing puzzle pieces—and then streamlined that research to write the story of the person in question. For the sake of their readers, they often bury some of the messiness of what their research has dug up.—Scott Saul, www.becomingrichardpryor.com/pryors-peoria/home/about/
It's so much easier for me to talk about my life in front of two thousand people than it is one-to-one. I'm a real defensive person, because if you were sensitive in my neighborhood you were something to eat.—Richard Pryor, quoted in Scott Saul, Becoming Richard Pryor
We may not be literate, but we visual than a motherfucker.—Richard Pryor, quoted in Joe Layton, Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip
The late Richard Pryor's (1940–2005) career spanned from the 1960s to his ascent into superstardom in the late 1970s and 1980s. He was (and still is) one of the most universally beloved stand-up comedians, a producer, a writer, and an actor. He recorded several highly influential comedy albums. The filmed versions of his stand-up performances, Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (1979), Richard Pryor: Live on Sunset Strip (1982), Richard Pryor … Here and Now (1983), as well as feature films in which he acted or starred, including Wattstax (1973), Car Wash (1976), Silver Streak (1976), The Wiz (1978), Superman III (1983), and Lost Highway (1997), speak to how far his star had risen, and how widely known he became, in the two decades after he left Peoria. After a period of failing health during the 1990s and early 2000s, he died an untimely death at sixty-five in 2005. Scott Saul, in his biography, Becoming Richard Pryor, dedicates about the first quarter of the book to telling the story of the multitalented Pryor's earliest years as a youth in Peoria, Illinois, through [End Page 257] age twenty-two, and how those experiences with place, family, and populace continued to sculpt his comedic storytelling throughout his lifetime. If you are already a fan of the man and his work, Richard Pryor's Peoria: A Digital Companion to the Biography Becoming Richard Pryor, is an annotated journey through those formative years. More than that, it provides an enlightening history of the former "sin city" of the Midwest that produced both Pryor and Betty Friedan. More still, the site presents intimate snapshots of Black Peorians of the 1940s through the 1970s—entrepreneurs, teachers, students, parents, artists, and ne'er-do-wells—and maps of the neighborhoods in which they lived.
Upon its release in 2014, Saul's book received a multitude of positive reviews. From Newsweek, Time, and the New York Times to other authors like Michael Chabon and online publications such as Vulture and the Daily Beast, many reviewers applauded Saul's exhaustive archival research along with his prose. As Joan Acocella wrote for the New Yorker, "Whatever Pryor is involved with—brothels in postwar Peoria, high-school dropout rates for Black teenagers in that time and place, and African-American G.I.'s chance of getting a date in Germany in the late fifties, the coffee-house scene in Berkeley in the sixties, the Black Power movement in Oakland in the seventies (and that's just the beginning—forget all the later and much more complicated business of working in nightclubs and TV and movies)—Saul has studied it all."1 And the book's companion website, Richard Pryor's Peoria, is a curated online archive of what Saul studied. Envisioned as a multimodal project, it is a trove of digitized photographs, newspaper articles, and official/governmental records, all displayed and organized correspondingly with highlights from Pryor's personal life: the places he lived, worked, and frequented, a history of "his" Peoria, and other key elements that corroborate Saul's biography of the comedian through 1962, when he left Illinois. It is an "attempt...