T.A. Battle is no stand-up comedian. But he knows what it feels like to be one—and to bomb.
“I got the CD at home, man!” yells a heckler at Battle’s May 27 show at Alexandria’s Old Town Theater.
The Southeast writer/actor/director is reciting Richard Pryor’s classic 1978 bit “Monkeys,” as part of his one-man show, And It’s Deep, Too: The Richard Pryor Story. Battle, a hulking, husky-voiced former basketball player, looks nothing like Pryor save for his thick mustache, but he’s got the foul-mouthed comedian’s warbling, screechy voice down pat.
Battle is committed to introducing Pryor to new fans and resurrecting him for old ones—after all, the legendary funnyman hasn’t performed much publicly since his 1986 announcement that he has multiple sclerosis. But rather than admiring this homage, some audience members are reacting as if Battle were stealing Pryor’s material and passing it off as his own.
“Yeah, I remember that one, too!” the heckler says when Battle attempts another joke. The armchair comedian and his buddies become even louder and more critical when Battle re-creates a well-known sketch wherein Pryor plays a drunk who stumbles home to his wife and starts talking shit. They shout punch lines before Battle can get them out, and they really lose it when Battle falls to the ground.
“Hey, somebody got the number to Joke’s on Us?” the ringleader screams.
The fall is one of the more serious moments in the evening, and it’s one of the few imagined episodes in an otherwise true-to-life biography—an attempt to illustrate the seriousness behind Pryor’s many jokes about drinking and drugs. As Battle splays out on the stage for several minutes, a recording of Maya Angelou’s performance as the wife in a ’70s television version of this infamous skit plays in the background. Battle considers it a deeply symbolic moment, but its significance is lost on the jokers.
“I’m leaving!” the main jester finally says. “Use my $10 to buy yourself a new shirt!”
When Battle gets up, he’s a bit shaken, but Mudbone saves his ass. He launches into one of the most famous jokes that Pryor told while channeling the old man from Tupelo, Miss.: “These niggas are walking across the Golden Gate Bridge, and seeing all that water makes ’em wanna take a piss,” Battle says in Mudbone’s voice. “One nigga takes his dick out and starts pissin’. Another takes his out to piss. First nigga says, ‘Damn, water cold!’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, and it’s deep, too.’”
The audience roars, and Battle himself breaks character for a moment to give his own chuckle, which makes the crowd laugh even louder.
“Mudbone won me back from the hecklers,” Battle says later. “I had the audience back with me.”
Even so, his portrayal gets mixed reviews.
Bethesda resident Theresa Cain calls the show “excellent”: “The brother is meticulous in keeping the legacy of this living legend alive,” she says. “He’s doing for Pryor what Jamie Foxx did for Ray Charles.”
But Fairfax County’s Carmen James leaves disappointed. “I didn’t like it,” she says. “It’s been such a long time since I’ve seen Pryor perform, but what makes him funny is the facial expressions, the body language, and that wasn’t there. The voice was there, but it wasn’t the whole package.”
Battle shrugs off such criticism. When someone takes issue with his show, he thinks of it not as a comment on his abilities, but as a lack of understanding about Pryor’s importance. “Not everyone wants the story to be told,” he says.
Battle has fond memories of trying to listen to Pryor behind his mother’s back. Growing up in Rocky Mount, N.C., he and his brother would often try to catch the comic’s short-lived TV series and his appearances on Saturday Night Live without being caught.
“She called him ‘that man,’” he says of his mother. “‘That man that does all that cursing.’”
But it wasn’t until he was in college that Battle discovered his knack for imitating the comic’s routines. He gave one of his earliest Mudbone impressions at a basketball banquet at Fairfax’s George Mason University, where he was a star baller in the late ’80s. The impressionist went over so well that, once both school and his basketball dreams were over, Battle decided to try a little open-mike stand-up.
“It must have been about ’94, because 10 out of 12 jokes were O.J. jokes,” he recalls. “I’m trying not to say I bombed, but…”
Battle says he lasted just a month, and that long only because GMU-boosting local business owners sometimes paid him. He used the money to finance his first film, a romantic comedy called Strawberry Giggles, which was filmed on George Mason’s campus. The production was notable mostly because Battle snagged actor Blair Underwood’s little sister for the female lead and was able to scrounge up enough extras to make George Mason look like a historically black university on celluloid.
“That showed me I was resourceful,” he says.
Battle continued to act, in both plays and small television roles, and write screenplays. In 2000, he formed Ambria Park Productions and produced the short film Meet the G’ That Killed Me. But he soon found that making films was expensive—he routinely had a hard time paying his cast and crew.
“I would run out of money for two weeks, and for an actor, two weeks is a lot of money,” Battle says. “But I got something from that—I got me. I said, ‘I’ll play the roles.’”
So he shifted gears from film to stage, with the intention of bringing an affordable theater experience to black audiences. The idea to do a one-man show about Pryor’s life came while Battle was working on another, more serious production titled Suicide, which required the actor to play 12 different characters. Although the show wasn’t as successful as Battle had hoped, and routinely drew tiny audiences, the experience gave him the idea for the Pryor play: A preacher character in Suicide had ended up sounding a lot like one Pryor often channeled in his act.
Battle had been toying with doing a show paying homage to a great black comedian or musician, and with Mudbone and the preacher under his belt, he figured he was well on his way to assembling the cast of characters born from Pryor’s imagination.
Besides, Pryor was irresistibly appealing. “There isn’t an actor today who wouldn’t want his story,” Battle says. Pryor’s life is rich with the sort of conflict and hardship that audiences can’t get enough of. “I knew I wanted to do him tripping on acid, his heart attack, his father, him shooting up a car on New Year’s Eve, him freebasing.”
So Battle decided to take eight months off from his 9-to-5 job in customer service to research Pryor, polish his impressions, and memorize hours of material. He listened to Pryor’s albums to nail the voice and watched his movies to study the comic’s twitching, wobbly mannerisms. “Stir Crazy came on one night, on the Spanish channel,” says Battle. “I watched the whole thing.”
Battle freely admits that he’s not much of a comedian, but he figured that his acting skills would get him through. The show devotes less time to Pryor’s routines than to his life, from his childhood spent in a Peoria, Ill., whorehouse through his stand-up and film careers to his current retirement.
Battle knew that if his show was anything less than flawless audiences would eat him alive. “When I began this, I said, ‘If I’m not on point with Richard, I’m gonna get it,’” he says. “He was the first one to give drunks, winos, hustlers, and crap shooters—people seen as an embarrassment to the race—a voice,” Battle says. “I wanted to represent his legacy.”
But even with the best of intentions, duplicating ancient comedy acts is difficult—even for professional impersonators. Susan McFarlane, an entertainment consultant with the Rockville-based Washington Talent Agency who often books impersonators, says that actors who imitate comedians and deliver their material well are entertaining but rare.
“It’s very difficult to be a comedian, number one, and to impersonate one you not only have to impersonate their comedy style, but be a lookalike and have their mannerisms, or,” she says, “act alike. It’s twice as hard.
“We used to work with a Rodney Dangerfield,” McFarlane continues, “The comedy was so stale, after a certain number of jokes, that’s it.”
Battle acknowledges that retelling the old, familiar jokes of a master comic is fraught with challenges. “It’s not like going onstage and doing someone’s music—people request those songs,” he says. “But with comedians, no one says, ‘Hey! Tell that joke again!’ But Richard is special.”
On the surface, it seems that Battle is driven by a desire to preserve all of the good things about Pryor’s legacy—and even defend some of the bad. He has an unusual affection for Pryor’s movies, and not just his turn as the piano man in the acclaimed Lady Sings the Blues. “Even those throwaway movies like The Toy have a story behind them,” Battle says. “I learned that he did them to make money to support his drug habit.”
Still, despite his fascination with the comic, Battle admits that the decision to create a performance to tell Pryor’s life story wasn’t solely about paying tribute: “Doing Suicide, the small turnout—it hurt me,” he says. “I said, ‘We need a marquee name.’”
“Hopefully, with Richard, people will find Ambria Park and T.A. Battle,” he says. “The name is slowly getting out there. I hope that there’s some word association, people will see the name, hear it, and come out.”
And Battle has a ton of projects that he needs Pryor’s help in promoting. He’s working on a novel called Niambi’s Heart, which follows a single father trying to raise a daughter over the course of several decades; he wants to start doing Suicide again at drug-rehabilitation centers and other venues where he thinks it could have a positive impact; and he wants to get back into film and start employing actors other than himself again.
“I don’t want to be tagged as the man that does one-man shows,” he says. “I want a core group of players.”
Still, Battle has had such fun portraying Pryor that he isn’t quite ready to give up the medium just yet. He’d like to do another one-man show, focusing on a different important black entertainer. At the end of every performance of And It’s Deep, Too, Battle passes out surveys asking audience members what they thought of his act. And the last question on the survey asks respondents to pick the character they’d like to see him tackle next: Redd Foxx, Magic Johnson, Paul Robeson, or Marvin Gaye.
Battle thought that Foxx would be the choice. In fact, the Sanford and Son buff is already working on a screenplay based on the television show. Even Johnson would’ve made sense, given Battle’s massive height. But Gaye has been the overwhelming favorite.
“I can sing a little bit, but I think I’d have to fake that one,” Battle says. “I’d have to lip-sync with Marvin.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photo by Darrow Montgomery.