Planet of the Ape
Dog & Pony Theatre helps playwright Stovall to evolve.
Two years ago, on one of those unreal January nights in Chicago when you step off the bus and find the snow is up to your knees, Paul Oakley Stovall’s play As Much as You Can premiered to a small audience whose soggy shoes were dripping puddles onto the floor of the Raven Theatre studio.
The play, about a group of African-American adult siblings whose divergent reactions to their brother’s new boyfriend causes family friction, was a fresh, open-minded examination of contemporary middle-class black life. (Even the most homophobic sister generated a little sympathy.) More notable, though, was that it was produced by a Caucasian-led storefront company and featured no ensemble members in the cast.
This week the same company, Dog & Pony, premieres Stovall’s newest play, Ape, about a 14-year-old whose pubescent awakening raises questions about Darwin and creationism that the adults in his life would prefer he didn’t ask. And, as inspired by the weather that greeted his last opening, the whole thing takes place during a blinding blizzard.
Though Stovall started out as an actor, and continues to perform, a lack of satisfying material left him hungry and disenchanted. “I wasn’t seeing any projects that I would (a) want to be in or (b) want to see,” Stovall said by phone, 20 minutes after the New York–residing actor stepped off a plane in Chicago. (He was here to perform in a benefit for About Face Theatre, where he’s an artistic associate.)
A native Chicagoan, the 37-year-old Stovall is uncommonly candid when discussing his process. He’s ever grateful to his family, for example, for ultimately embracing him after coming out. But he reveals that the family in As Much as You Can had undeniable resemblances to his own. “They handled it really well, but it was clearly inspired at least in part by my own experience,” he says.
Introduced originally to Dog & Pony’s artistic director Krissy Vanderwarker by a mutual friend, Stovall found an unlikely advocate in the then-nascent storefront company. “Our company doesn’t just consist of actors,” Vanderwarker says, “so we’re not really in the market just to showcase them. We’re drawn to stories first, and work that’s not done in Chicago.”
In addition to the premieres of Stovall’s first and second plays, D&P gave Chicago first glimpses of Sheila Callaghan’s Crumble (Lay Me Down Justin Timberlake) and Dead City, as well as Dennis Kelly’s Osama the Hero.
Another smart move on the company’s behalf was asking Stovall and Callaghan to join the family. While both writers are New York–based, having them in the company eliminates a problem non-Equity Chicago companies constantly face: fighting for production rights for new work originally produced outside the city. After all, if a playwright can snag a high-profile production by one of the city’s top-flight companies, why should he let whippersnappers he’s never heard of get the first crack at it?
“Sheila took a risk on us,” Vanderwarker says of Callaghan, one of several resolutely below–14th Street dramatists whose effort to gain mainstream acknowledgment has been well documented. “Sheila’s been in it long enough to know that you can only get rejected by the big boys so many times before you have to gamble, just to get your work seen at all,” she says. The gamble paid off. D&P’s successful production of Crumble put Callaghan on Chicago’s map, and vice versa.
Meanwhile, Stovall’s profile is also on the rise. He’s recently been invited, along with Lookingglass’s Laura Eason, to contribute lyrics to a new musical about gay, black civil-rights leader Bayard Rustin. (The producer is Legally Blonde’s Ruth Hendel.)
Stovall still continues to tread the boards. This fall he’ll appear in the tour of Argonautika, and he recently showed up in John Cameron Mitchell’s vérité sex odyssey Shortbus. (Alas, his sex scene ended up on the cutting-room floor.)
And though Stovall continues to tread the boards, he now sees himself as a writer who appears in the occasional play, rather than the other way around. Of the expense of flying into Chicago to perform for About Face, Stovall notes that it wouldn’t be feasible, financially or otherwise, without the support of the producers of his New York Bayard Rustin project.
Now he just needs to pray for decent weather.
Ape opens at Raven Theatre Wednesday 12.