Actor and playwright Paul Oakley Stovall found his voice early. By high school he was a published poet, an accomplished debater and self-assured actor. However, his drive to achieve, he admits, was set in motion by a looming, inner-tension: A secret.
As a young gay black man, Stovall was able to push through the isolation, but the power of that self-imposed silencing remained with him – later becoming powerful creative fodder. His play Immediate Family tackles not just the adverse effects of muting one’s essential self, but explores the cultural dynamics surrounding and inspiring it. Immediate Family looks squarely at the fraught intersection of race and sexuality, of love and hypocrisy and the minefield of omission and silence.
You’ve been writing since you were 16. How did that become your creative outlet?
Paul Oakley Stovall:
I usually mention that I started at 16 because I was put in a class – you know how they call students gifted – I’m so afraid of that word – but we were in this poetry class. I had an affinity, I imagine, the instructor saw, for getting a thought across clearly, with very few words. My poetry was very succinct...
...and was published in a book soon after?
When I was told I couldn't, it was 'Watch and see...'
Just a couple hundred copies went out, I’m sure. But at 16, I didn’t even know what was happening. But to answer the question more in earnest, my passion for writing actually didn’t happen until years later. I went into acting and theatre and singing. And in 2003, I joined a theatre company in Chicago. The company was preparing to do its winter festival of new works with work generated by the company. I was told, “Paul we would like you to sing a few numbers between each presentation and keep them entertained” and I said, “I’m a company member, and I feel I should contribute my thoughts dramatically”; I was the only African American member of the company. They said, “No, you are going to entertain.” So I said, “Well, actually, I already have a play.” They asked: “Oh you do? Can we see it?” I told them: “You can see it tomorrow.” And I went home and wrote. I wrote enough scenes so that I could come back and say: “I only feel comfortable giving you one scene.” As it turns out it was the scene between Tony, Kristian and Jesse that would become Immediate Family. That’s all I had.
What was the reaction?
The audience went nuts and so then they asked: “Do you have the rest of it?” I said, I need to do some edits, and I’m not ready to show it.” I ended up writing the whole thing in about a week. So these characters came to life then. Obviously it’s changed so much. But really that’s what began my passion. Cracking that nut. When I was told I couldn’t, it was “Watch and see....”
How did you make that segue into theatre?
I was an athlete. And I was in every sport available, every quarter in school. The basketball team would be in the gym but that’s also where the school stage was. Sometimes they just pulled in whoever had energy. When I was in 8th grade, they needed some boys to be in West Side Story. They actually gave me a speaking role – Chino – and boy I loved it. When Chino shoots Tony, the audience goes: “Huah!” – as soon as I did that – I thought: “Oh, I can do that?” Then it became, “How can I jockey the schedule so that I can do that and athletics and student government and math club....”
With all that juggling, what were you hoping to accomplish?
I think it was in order to not deal with other things. I wasn’t the kid who ate my problems away, I was the kid who, if I leave the house at 8 a.m. and don’t come back until 10 p.m., I’m good. So I just joined everything I could. Eventually, I think theatre just grabbed ahold of me in a more personal way.
But what were you running from at home?
I think I was running from a fear of being excommunicated from my family for being gay. I had loving, super-intelligent, sophisticated, modern parents, so this was all in my head. But once you realize you have a secret, things shift. I was brave enough to go ahead and know that eventually, these two things are going to bump and I’ll have to come out – but I won’t deal with it until I have to.
So you were building not just your courage but spirit it sounds like?
Yes. I love that you chose the word “bump” because often that crash is what creates something new. Yes, that’s what I think created Immediate Family. You know when people talk about the play...people come to me, very humbled and thankful. Often people say Jesse is the protagonist, but really it’s Evy. This play is about her. Jesse is a major, major supporting role, but the play only happens because Evy’s conflict is set in motion.
The play is ostensibly about love and all the permutations and possibilities of it. But it also deals with the limits of acceptance that often exist in families. Particularly the African American family. Why do you think this remains such a difficult hill to climb?
The simple answer is what I think holds anyone back from something: Fear – that things will work out. Now, I know you didn’t think I was going to say that second half. Because if it works out, then what? Do you die once there is no conflict? We thrive so much on conflict. We feed off of it. Look at all the TV shows. But what if they were all nice to one another? No one would care. So there’s a fear – maybe a fear of not feeling vital. I think the opposite is true, that if we got it together, think about the things we could do. We could levitate! But it’s so devilishly fun to roll around in the mud.
Part of bringing people together in the context of the play is a dramatic game of bid whist, it’s a device that works as a bridge – how did you come to the decision that this was going to be a centerpiece?
...if we got it together, think about the things we could do. We could levitate!
I fought for it for years. Because producers would read that scene and they would say, “It just looks like some gobbledygook and you can’t understand this game.” But it’s not about understanding how to play the game. It’s about understanding what it means to these people. I learned it growing up. I have lamented how my little nieces and nephews barely know how to play Spades. But for many black people, bid whist was a rite of passage. It was serious. And it was important to realize that not anyone can sit at the table.
The play also examines the ways in which religion, and the Bible in particular, is used both as weapon and wedge between our hearts and reason. It’s also used – painfully as you so illustrate – to determine who can sit at the table – so to speak. The family struggles mightily with its perceptions. Why is there still such a divide?
It’s education. Education. We need real education. About the Bible, theology and about history. We need to be more informed. That’s why also the discussion about heroes is so important. Let the children choose who their hero is. Pull all the information out, and let the child choose.
People often ask writers, “What do you hope audiences take away?,” but really I am wondering what sort of conversations do you hope begin to take shape after people have experienced this, because this play opens doors we so often simply walk past.
I hope that people might have a conversation with someone that they didn’t necessarily think that they would. The integration of the audience at the Goodman was so wonderful. To have the gay community and the black community and older patrons and very young patrons in there. They would come in groups – you know how black women get their groups together – and they would start hanging out at the bar with the white boys and start talking. And then the white boys who came with their black boyfriends started talking to the women who wouldn’t ordinarily want to talk to them. So it was who was talking. That’s one thing that I want. Because you’ve been laughing and that muscle has been worked and your defenses are down – and the rest of It – the deeper stuff – it will come.