I know many of you may remember when Richard Pryor had his TV show. Back in the 70′s after several successful appearances on Saturday Night Live and a string of profitable movies, NBC gave Pryor an hour in prime time to put on a show of his choice—and the results were ground breaking.
The show was called The Richard Pryor Special? and it included some of the most gut-wrenchingly honest and heart-breaking sketches ever seen on TV.
The most powerful sketch of the show was almost certainly the one revolving around Pryor’s drunk “Willie” character. The eleven-minute sketch starts out in a bar, where Willie is already on the verge of being asked to leave for his inebriated antics. He berates a few of the bar’s patrons, jawbones with the bartender (played by John Belushi) for a little while, and gets beaten up by the irate husband of one of the tavern’s drunken regulars.
So far there have been a few genuine laughs, but it scarcely seems like a comedy sketch—it’s too trenchant and cuts way too deep about the nature of poverty and alcohol addiction. But the sketch is just getting going.
At this juncture Willie stumbles home and passes out on the couch in front of his wife—played astonishingly by Maya Angelou. The last four minutes of the sketch are a monologue by Willie’s wife as she begins to read the drunken, unconscious figure of Willie.
Her soliloquy is a masterpiece of pain, understanding, despair, and forgiveness, a howl of anguish by the woman who loves him, the man whose poverty-driven tribulations and shame-fueled alcoholism have, it’s fair to say, ruined her life.
America was definitely not ready for this type of show back then….especially from the Black experience. But, it definitely hits home today.
Maya Angelou wrote her part for the sketch and it is one of her hidden treasures that has never been published or performed since. But watching and listening to it now, almost 40 years later, ranks it as one of Maya Angelou’s most poignant works.
Definitely watch the video below; it’s futile for me to capture its courage, honesty, and brilliance in her words.
The first video is just the Maya Angelou segment at the end of sketch. The 2nd video is the entire sketch.
This is the entire sketch.
The views expressed are that solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect WHUR or Howard University.
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