‘Modern Family’ meets ‘Soul Food.’
by Donalevan Maines
Paul Oakley Stovall lay in a hospital bed, recovering from “an unfortunate accident” in which he was mistaken for someone else and shot in both legs. That’s when, at age twenty-one, he decided to come out to his family.
“It was hilarious, actually,” says Stovall, now known as both an actor and a playwright. The regional premiere of his hit comedy Immediate Family is set to play this month at the Ensemble Theatre. The play premiered last summer at the prestigious Goodman Theatre in Stovall’s hometown of Chicago, under the direction of Houston-born Phylicia Rashad, the Tony Award-winning actress. The Ensemble describes Immediate Family as Modern Family meets Soul Food.
“I thought, ‘If I die, people will show up at my funeral, and my family didn’t know any of my friends,’” recalls Stovall. “Some of my gay friends would be coming to visit me, too. I didn’t want my family to not know that part of my life.”
Stovall explains that he was staying at the home of an actress friend when “some people came looking for her ne’er-do-well boyfriend.” That’s how Stovall got shot, but the facts aren’t as important as the upshot, which is that Stovall gained a whole new perspective on life.
Likewise, while Immediate Family concerns an African-American family’s prodigal son who shows up for a family wedding with his Swedish “friend,” who is actually his boyfriend, Stovall says, “I am somewhere in the play, but I’m not the character you think I am.”
If it sounds like Stovall is playing his cards close to his chest, just wait—there’s more. In the play, the characters play a card game called “bid whist bid whist” that is so important to the actors’ understanding of the show that Stovall has been traveling to Houston during rehearsals to school the players on the dynamics of the game. “I know what it’s like to crack the code,” he says, explaining that bid whist is a tradition in the African-American culture, particularly in the South, and a precursor to the game of bridge.
What Stovall says he can’t understand is the hand-wringing distress over laws or court decisions concerning gay marriages. “I want equality, but I don’t understand the struggle of waiting for somebody to give me something that is my birthright,” he explains. “I guess I’m most perplexed by people who think they have the right to make a decision about whether I can marry or not. I just don’t get it.”
Stovall’s dilemma might stem from his age—he turns 44 on September 23—coming from a generation in which men became couples and women became couples (or not) without regard for whether a government sanctioned their relationships. “How I feel has only increased as I’ve gotten older,” he says. “There’s nothing to hide. There’s nothing to be afraid of.
“Growing up, I was in every sport you could do—swimming, tennis, baseball, basketball. Then my sophomore year, I got the [theater] bug. The thing that got me is that I was playing Starbuck in 110 in the Shade—this is funny—it was my junior year, and I was still trying to juggle sports and theater. “I was playing in a baseball game that morning, and I fractured my ankle,” he remembers. “I called the theater and said, ‘Somebody in the scene shop, make a cane!’
“I love this a lot,” he adds. “All of a sudden, my part was informed by the cane, and whether I hobbled or not.”
Something about how a prop—or not—could change the emotional life of his character was crucial in causing Stovall to drop sports and concentrate on theater.
Another simple incident, he says, changed the direction of Stovall’s career from actor to both actor and playwright. While working at About Face Theatre, an LGBTQA arts collective in Chicago, Stovall explains, “We were working on a festival of new works. They asked me if I would sing some songs.” When Stovall suggested that he write a theater piece instead, he was told, “But you’re not a writer.”
“I looked them right in the eye,” Stovall recalls, and vowed to write a scene for a theater piece. The scene he wrote morphed into Immediate Family.
Stovall returns to the Ensemble for previews September 21–22 and September 25 and the show’s opening night, September 26.
“I can’t wait for this birthday,” says Stovall. “I’m blown away that the Ensemble has chosen to do my play, so it will be a happy birthday for me.”
What: Immediate Family
When: September 26–October 20
Where: Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main St.
Tickets/info: ensemblehouston.com or 713/520-0055
Donalevan Maines also writes about Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical in this issue of OutSmart magazine.