Don't say that Paul Oakley Stovall, author of Immediate Family, which opens at the Mark Taper Forum on Sunday, works for Michelle Obama. He'll quickly and graciously correct you: “It should be phrased a certain way. I serve as an advance associate for the office of the First Lady.”
He adds, “Working indicates staff, which indicates I work in White House, which I don't, so I serve adjunctly on her traveling duties.”
A tall man with a mellow but commanding disposition, Stovall's modesty rings true.
Being associated with the White House in any capacity is an especially odd job for a playwright — and writers are known for holding plenty of odd jobs. He stumbled into the gig while working retail at a Bed Bath and Beyond in Manhattan when Barack Obama was still the junior senator from Illinois. Stovall was unimpressed by a co-worker who told tall tales of freelancing for politicians, but when Obama hit the campaign trail, the co-worker made sure Stovall could come along as well. He's been with the First Family ever since, helping arrange Michelle Obama's plans when she travels outside of Washington, D.C.
But before you get any ideas, Stovall's play, Immediate Family, which opens at the Mark Taper Forum downtown on Sunday, isn't about the Obama family, or even his own family. That's not to say there aren't parallels; the play is about a black family in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood (where the Obamas lived before 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.) who come together for the wedding of the younger son, Tony. Jesse, the middle child, is gay but still closeted, and has brought his Swedish boyfriend, Kristian, along to the wedding.
While it seems that Jesse's character is based on Stovall, he relates much more to Kristian's perspective. “There's the central, African-American character who's gay, and people think, 'Oh, that's you!'” he says. “My personal experience is more like the Swedish character, because I was living in Sweden, and I was the outsider who was brought into his world. But I couldn't write a play about a bunch of Swedish people, 'cause my Swedish is passable but it's not good enough to write a play. So I flipped it.”
Any story line about coming out could easily be told as an overwrought drama, but for Stovall, who says that “homosexuality is complicated in the black community,” it was only natural to write the play as a comedy.
“Laughter has gotten me through a lot of my life,” he says. “When you get identified so quickly in life, and other demons that I battled when I was younger — being LGBT and not knowing how to express it — you can go one of two ways: You can go down a darker path, or laughter can get you through. So the comedy part always seemed germane to who I was.”
He first wrote the play a decade ago, under the title As Much as You Can, for a small non-Equity theater in Chicago. Stovall wrote the first version in one night, as a late addition to his theater company's festival of new works. The company had originally assumed that, due to his musical theater background, Stovall wouldn't be interested in writing a straight play, but he lied and told the company that he'd already written one. “They said, 'Well, show us some of it,' and I said, 'I'll bring you some tomorrow,' and I went home and wrote part of what has become this, because somebody told me that I couldn't,” he recalls.
Stovall fine-tuned the play through productions in Chicago, New York and a 2008 run at L.A.'s Celebration Theatre before it played at Chicago's Goodman Theatre in 2012 in its current incarnation, as Immediate Family. He got help from director (and Cosby Show matriarch) Phylicia Rashad, who whittled the setting from eight locations down to one living room, à la August Wilson.
Stovall's a fan of the change, which allows the characters to confront their inner demons, and one another. He says, “I was very interested in telling [this story] from inside the house, which is what I think Phylicia was thinking the whole time,” he says. “Get in the house, and make people deal with themselves, so we can see really, what is the thing that we’re afraid of?”
So what's next for Stovall? He'll be back serving the First Lady, once this production is finalized for opening night on Sunday. “[Michelle Obama] loves theater in a very personal way, it's just something that she digs. So knowing that I do that, she's fine if I take this time off,” he says.
But he's been gone since January, working on various theater projects, and his absence has been noted, he says. “They emailed me and said, 'So your opening is May 3?' And I said, 'Yeah.' And they said, 'Great! May 4, we're sending you out!'”
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