Out actor, playwright and Chicago native Paul Oakley Stovall was surprised that Tony Award-winning actress Phylicia Rashad (The Cosby Show, A Raisin in the Sun) agreed to read his play Immediate Family. He was even more elated when she came on to direct the play, which is now in previews at the Goodman Theatre's Owen Bruner Theatre as a rental production produced by Paul Boskind, Ruth Hendel and Stephen Hendel in association with About Face Theatre.
"I just went out on a limb and took a chance and I was very lucky that someone of her stature said, 'Sure, I'll read your play,'" Stovall said during a recent telephone interview. "Three days later she emailed in a very long email saying very nice things, and even then I didn't have the courage to ask her to direct it for another couple of months."
Stovall, who also serves as an advance associate for President Obama's administration, is grateful that Rashad is stretching herself as an artist and director by tackling a new text. And that's even when Rashad's advice clashes with his writing instincts.
"I really go for it with what I like to say as how people really talk in my dialogue." Stovall said. So he was taken aback later on in the rehearsal process when Rashad called him out on a joke that she felt was offensive. Though Stovall was apprehensive about making a change, it was when Rashad invoked the name of comedy great Bill Cosby that he eventually relented.
"So you don't ever have to insult another religion, race or sexualityeven if it's your attempt to say, 'Hey, I'm an equal opportunity offender and have my sights set on everybody,'" Stovall said, thinking back to his own experiences with Cosby's revered humor.
Immediate Family is a major reworking of Stovall's 2005 Chicago play As Much as You Canso much so that he feels the work can rightfully be billed as a world premiere. It deals with the African-American Bryant family, who reunites in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood for the youngest brother's wedding. At this stressful and celebratory juncture, secrets get revealed and family members take sides when the prodigal son Jesse shows up with his Swedish "friend" (who is actually his boyfriend.)
Even though several social breakthroughs have occurred in the past few months with endorsements of same-sex marriage by President Barack Obama and the NAACP, Stovall still says his play is timely since so many other individuals need to be convinced in order to shift on their own personal opinions on the issue.
"This play is about the possibility of one person shifting their point of view on something because I think that's how real change happensit happens through tiny little shifts and tiny little earthquakes," Stovall said about his characters in Immediate Family. "Let's not forget that (these high-profile endorsements for gay marriage) has raised the ire of many people who disagree."
Stovall doesn't want to jinx his hopes of a high-profile future life for Immediate Family once its Chicago run concludes, even if Tony Award-winning producers are already attached to his play. Stovall also hopes Immediate Family will attract a wider audience who can see beyond simple labels.
"It's easy to say that, okay, I'm an African-American gay writer so it's a 'gay play,'" Stovall said. "But it's really a play about siblings and it's a play about family and who is a family, whether it's a constructed family or a blood family or your adopted family. As I say in the play, it's all your immediate family."
Immediate Family continues through Aug. 5 at the Goodman Theatre's Owen Bruner Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. Previews run through June 7, with an official opening night of June 8. Performance schedule varies, but largely 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays (no shows July 2-4), 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Preview tickets are $20-$39, and $20-$54 during the regular run. Call 312-443-3800 or visit www.goodmantheatre.org for more information.
Follies in L.A.
The acclaimed 2011 Broadway revival of the Stephen Sondheim/James Goldman musical Follies recently transferred to Los Angeles after its New York run ended, just like its original production from 1971.
Back in 1972, Follies was the first show to open up the new Shubert Theatre in Century City, Calif. (which was later demolished in 2002an ironic twist since Follies is a musical set at a showgirl reunion at a soon-to-be demolished theater). In 2012, Follies served as a replacement subscription show when a Broadway-bound revival of Funny Girl starring Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under) at the Ahmanson Theatre was scuttled when its funding fell through.
Although the Eric Schaeffer-directed revival that originated at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., is largely the same, there is a key difference that makes Follies in Los Angeles so much more fulfilling and richer than it was on Broadway.
Tony Award winner Victoria Clark (The Light in the Piazza) assumed the role of Sally Durant Plummer, which was previously played in the revival by Tony Award-winner Bernadette Peters (Song and Dance, Into the Woods).
With her soaring soprano voice and a decision not to reveal her character's mental instability up front, Clark offered up a much more compelling take on the role than Peters, who despite her best efforts, was essentially miscast. Theater fanatics who like to judge quality by award contests noted that Peters was not nominated for a Tony Award, while three of her Follies costars were nominated in leading acting categories (Jan Maxwell, Danny Burstein and Ron Raines.)
Follies overall is nominated for eight Tonys, and is expected to fare well at the Tony Awards Sunday, June 10 (broadcast on CBS). Although the show has closed on Broadway, Follies' triumphant return to Los Angeles shows how a casting change can make an enormous difference.
Follies runs at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., in Los Angeles, through Saturday, June 9. Visit www.centertheatregroup.com for more information.