When Rod Gailes OBC grew up on the west side of Detroit, his parents owned Richard Pryor’s comedy albums, but didn’t allow their children to listen to them.
“He did ‘blue’ records,” Gailes said, using the adjective for profanity-laced dialogue and sexual topics, “and I never saw Richard Pryor live, either. I knew him through his movies.”
Perhaps a new generation will learn about Pryor through the play “Unspeakable,” about Pryor’s successful and tragic life that ended at age 65 in 2005. Gailes co-wrote it and will direct its five-week run in Chicago which begins on Tuesday.
Gailes calls his play “a dramatic fantasia” that grew over 10 years since its debut as experimental theater at the 2005 New York International Fringe Festival. If well-received in Chicago, “Unspeakable” could be headed for New York and Broadway.
“The setting is the mind of Richard Pryor,” Gailes said in a telephone interview from Chicago. “Kind of like a dreamscape.”
Pryor is played by James Murray Jackson Jr., who co-wrote “Unspeakable” and played the lead role a decade ago.
The play, which is not sanctioned by Pryor’s estate, is set in 2004, with Pryor suffering from multiple sclerosis and on the verge of death. It imagines Pryor looking back on his life, which ended in a heart attack.
“Such an outspoken person,” Gailes said, “and, essentially, he was trapped in his body. What would your thoughts be like? When your body is enslaved, it allows your mind to be free.”
Gailes is a graduate of the University of Michigan. From seventh grade through high school, he attended University of Detroit Jesuit. For a while, he considered the priesthood.
“Jesuits were cool dudes, they were cool priests,” Gailes said.
He decided against the seminary, Gailes said, because he didn’t want communal living and celibacy.
Now living in Harlem, Gailes said he visits Detroit three or four times a year and directed a production of his musical “COLORS: Dream of the MASTA” at Detroit’s Boll Family YMCA in 2008.
As the son of a man who worked at a Chrysler plant, Gailes said he learned how to respect and work with the unions in the theater business.
“The UAW put food in my mouth,” he said.
Public figures who inspired him, he said, included Motown founder Berry Gordy and former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young.
“Love him or hate him, he shook things up,” Gailes said of Young. “He demanded respect.”
Respect and honor are important to Gailes. He added the three letters at the end of his name — “OBC” — because they are the initials of the maiden names of his mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.
Like many ex-Detroiters, he cheers signs of the city’s recovery while worrying that gentrification will drive out the people who hung on through the tough times.
“Right now,” he said, “it’s a great place for artists.”
Tuesday through Nov. 8
at Water Tower Place