In the play “Immediate Family,” playwright Paul Oakley Stovall takes on racism and homophobia within African-American culture through a family of smart and successful siblings in Chicago gathering for a wedding.
At the center of the play is older brother Jesse. He's gay, but he’s not out to his family — his parents are dead, but he's having trouble telling his siblings. He’s chosen this event to reluctantly tell them, and he’s also invited his parter, who happens to be white. The family's presented as educated, progressive and smart, but this is something they're not quite ready for.
"We all present ourselves a certain way, but when things come flying at you — the folly of life — what you have presented is not always the real deal," Stovall says. "So it's not only Jesse who's struggling with being his authentic self, it's his sister who thinks she's a very loving person, but her religion prevents her from doing certain things and reaching out in certain ways. Or another sister for whom alcohol gets in the way of being as open as she would like, although she thinks she's presenting a perfect version of herself."
Lying your way into writing a play
The play has an interesting genesis, with Stovall spinning his position with a Chicago theater company into putting up a scene — from a play that didn't exist yet.
"I fibbed — well, I shouldn't say fibbed; fibs are small. I told a huge whopper of a lie. The company decided they were going to do a new works festival where we all generated new work, or I thought all of us would. So when it came to me I said, 'OK, this is exciting, I'll write something.'"
But Stovall's theater company had something else in mind.
"They said, 'Oh, no, you're our musical theater guy.' I was kind of the musical theater actor there at the time, and they said, 'We'd rather have you host the event and sing songs between presentations and keep it flowing.' But I said, 'Nope, I'm gonna present a scene from my play.' And they said, 'Oh, what play is that?' And I said, 'Well, I'll bring the script tomorrow.' And I went home and wrote."
That night, Stovall started from a blank page.
"I had nothing, nothing but a lifetime of experiences," Stovall says, laughing. "I wrote about three scenes and I chose one of them, since we only had to present a scene for the festival."
They liked the scene, but there was no rest of the play to deliver.
"The board of directors and subscribers were at this event, and they all said, 'That's the one we like, so where's that play?' And then I had about four days to go and write a version of what has now become 'Immediate Family.'"
How political changes have changed the play
The play premiered in 2012 at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, and given the debate right now about marriage equality, Stovall says the subject matter is more timely now than it was even three years ago.
"My director, Phylicia Rashad, talked to me after 2012 and said, 'Listen, whenever we do this play next, more and more and more states will have equal marriage. That ball is rolling, that ship is sailing.' So in 2012, the debate between the two guys [in the play] was, 'Can we get married in Minnesota, since they have it and Illinois doesn't? Where are we going to live?' That was the debate then, so I had to adjust that."
Instead, Stovall is able to give them a problem less about legality and instead a broader relationship issue.
"Now, the debate is that one of them just doesn't want to get married, and in a way it normalizes them because it makes them just a couple, one of whom wants to get married and the other doesn't. We don't actually talk about marriage equality in the play, and I think it's a beautiful thing that we don't have to talk about it."
Where gays and black civil rights came together
There's a scene in the play between Evie, her brother Jesse and her sister Ronnie where they're debating who should and should not be included in a high school primer about black heroes. Ronnie makes the case for including Bayard Rustin. Evie won't hear it.
"For me, that debate is about who we choose to be our heroes in the black community, and our selective vision. I've come across highly educated black people who love the work of James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes or Duke Ellington's chief arranger, Billy Strayhorn, but don't want to hear a thing about their sexuality."
Stovall says he wants to bring out that conversation.
"There's a willful ignorance to separate one's accomplishments from who one is on the inside, and I love putting that out there and forcing the audience via Evie to face the truth about who Barbara Jordan was. There's an airport named after this woman, but people don't talk about how she was a lesbian. So I feel like the black community needs to have that conversation — we need to put more seats at the table and let more people sit down."
Bayard Rustin sat on a segregated bus a long time before Rosa Parks, but was a gay man.
"This man was having his ribs broken, teeth knocked out, fighting so hard. We were supposed to do the March on Washington in 1947, I believe, but because Bayard's sexuality came out in some incident in New York, they kicked him out. A. Philip Randolph and the like kicked him out, and then they couldn't get it together, so almost 20 years went by before we were able to do the March on Washington. You see the time we waste when we worry who's kissing who or who's kissing whose hand? It doesn't make any sense, right?"
“Immediate Family" continues at the Mark Taper Forum through June 7.