Richard Pryor Gets the Last Laugh in Peoria
The only memorial to the comedian in this town is a street sign. Preston Jackson is changing that with his bare hands.
PEORIA, Illinois — Richard Pryor Avenue isn’t far from the studio where his visage has been meticulously sculpted in red clay by Preston Jackson. Drive through a warehouse district being gentrified in the town of 119,000 and you’ll find the Peoria that Pryor knew as a child. It’s in a part of town that was filled with drugs, prostitutes, crime, poverty, pain and rage in Pryor’s days.
Pryor’s descriptions of Peoria as a boozy, whoring town have always bothered some here. Not to mention his musings on race, a sensitive subject in a city that mimics the de facto segregation of Chicago, and whose South End has long been home to most of Peoria’s blacks.
“You can kind of feel the anger when he walks on stage,” Jackson says. “This is what drove me to start this statue, even without a committee. Just my little black ass. I’m going to do this piece, I said. I can relate to him. I can relate to his reaction to society.”
Decades after he lit himself on fire while freebasing cocaine, after he went to rehab and got clean, after he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis—the city’s love for Pryor was virtually nonexistent. An appearance here during his 1993 comeback tour was cancelled following minuscule ticket sales.
But in Peoria the only official mention of the man Jerry Seinfeld called the Picasso of Comedy comes on the green, reflective aluminum of a street sign not far from the South End. Behind the sign, gleaming in the distance, are twin apartment towers that became the focal point of the city’s skyline when they sprouted in the 1970s and that crushed to dust some of the more bawdy nightspots of Pryor’s youth.
Jackson and others, including Pryor’s widow, have been raising tens of thousands of dollars for the statue for the better part of a decade. The group called Richard Pryor: More Than Just a Comedian hopes to place the statue on a pedestal some time in December, perhaps on Pryor’s birthday even. A Nov. 2 fundraiser featuring George Lopez, Cedric the Entertainer, and others will hopefully raise the remaining money needed to turn the clay model into bronze.
Along with providing Peoria with a work of art, Jackson and his group have convinced city leaders to designate a prominent street corner for its placement. It wasn’t easy.
“There were so many people that objected to the statue in the first place because of Richard’s style of comedy,” Jackson says.
It’s not that Peoria couldn’t take Pryor’s often stinging social commentary, says Phil Luciano, the Peoria Journal Star’s longtime columnist, who has written hundreds of stories on Pryor.
“I don’t think the thinking went that deep,” Luciano says. “It was drug use and foul mouth. That’s what it always came down to, that he was a poor representative of this town.”
Jackson doesn’t care much for that opinion.
“People who are out of touch or who have no idea what that lifestyle is about, it’s easy for them to comment,” he says of Pryor’s hometown critics. “I was just astonished at the amount of that kind of rhetoric, that kind of disconnect, that degree of insensitivity, which motivated me even more.”
When the artist mentions Pryor he speaks in the first person, conjuring images of the pair when they shared a stage before Pryor left Peoria for international fame.
Richard was so skinny they couldn’t keep him from getting up there,” Jackson says of the comedian, who riffed street routines while Jackson’s band took breaks at a long-forgotten bar called Hank’s Place. That was in the early 1960s, about a decade before Peoria would have to come to grips with her foul-mouthed, drug-addled native son popping up in clubs and on screens across the country.
“I used to hang out down at the projects down the street. The barber shops, the dancehalls, the night life… That was another world,” Jackson says.
But much has changed in Peoria since Pryor left here. The brothel his mother operated is long gone, as is the raucous and freewheeling environment that brought Jackson to the city from nearby Decatur. Bars, clubs and theaters have been replaced by office buildings and accompanying parking garages. Some of the city’s old nightspots were crushed to make way for the iconic twin apartment towers that provide a backdrop for Richard Pryor Avenue on the edge of the South End.
Jackson’s statue is a step in the right direction from a city whose “movers and shakers” have been “oddly Puritanical” in regards to Pryor, Luciano says.
“Do I think this town understand his contributions to the arts? Absolutely not,” Luciano says.
Jackson is hopeful that his statue will give Pryor the recognition he deserves in his hometown, though he jokes that he should have left Pryor’s middle finger up as a final gesture to the city that ignored and derided him for so long.