When Phylicia Rashad was cast as a replacement Violet Weston in Anna D. Shapiro's Broadway production of Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County," the Broadway gossip boards were abuzz with the notion of casting an African-American actress, best known for playing Clair Huxtable on "The Cosby Show," in a play that seemed to be very specifically about a dysfunctional white family, interlopers on the prairie. To some, it was akin to casting a white actor in a play by August Wilson.
"I was not the obvious choice," Rashad allowed, smiling, in an interview last week at the Goodman Theatre, where she is directing "Immediate Family," a new play by Paul Oakley Stovall. "But you know, I felt at home, because Tracy Letts writes with similar rhythms and the same attention to detail as August Wilson."
As things turned out, "August" stood up well to the notion of a racially mixed Weston family — which provided new resonance — and Rashad, who also played Big Mama in the Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and Aunt Ester in the Broadway production of Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean," is an actress of considerable range. The stint in "August" also put some things in motion.
"The most exciting thing about it was working with those actors from Chicago," Rashad said. "If I had known being insane was so much fun, I'd have gone crazy long ago."
One night at the Music Box Theatre in New York, actor-writer Stovall wandered backstage with a group of Rashad admirers.
"He didn't say much," Rashad said. But Stovall and Rashad had a previous connection through Ifa Bayeza, the writer-director who once lived in Chicago and created "The Ballad of Emmett Till" at the Goodman Theatre and now teaches at Brown University, where they all worked together. Stovall said he would send Rashad a couple of scripts, with the hope that she might direct one of them.
Stovall has a background just as interesting and diverse as that of Rashad. Tall and lithe, he first attracted attention in Chicago in the early 1990s when he appeared in Frank Galati's Goodman Theatre production of "The Good Person of Setzuan," and then became a fixture in much of the early work of Mary Zimmerman, including "The Notebooks of Leonardo De Vinci" and "Journey to the West," often with smaller actresses dangling from his frame. When "Notebooks" scored a New York production in 2003, Stovall went with the show and did not come back to Chicago to live.
"In New York, I kind of fell into the John Cameron Mitchell crowd," Stovall said, referencing the anti-establishment author of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." "He was the person who convinced me I should just go for it with my writing."
And thus Stovall wrote his first play since graduating from the Theatre School at DePaul University. Titled "As Much As You Can," it was produced in 2005 by what was then a new storefront operation in Chicago called Dog & Pony Theatre Company. "As Much As You Can" was the basis for "Immediately Family," which opens Saturday at the Goodman Theatre.
Between acting and writing, Stovall also scored another interesting gig: with the White House.
"I worked with a guy who was on the advance team for President Obama. He got me a job," he said. "I started out doing advance work for the president, but now I work almost exclusively for the first lady. I really see it as my own little contribution. I've always had trouble figuring out how I can participate and make a difference. This way, I can."
It is, Stovall said, a freelance gig that pops up as Michelle Obama travels. "We do the press and site logistics," Stovall said. "It's like my version of waiting tables, except I get to travel the world."
Meanwhile, Rashad had read "As Much As You Can," which Stovall had further developed. "I thought it was a very important play," she said. "Oh my goodness, there is so much there."
"Immediate Family" is set in Hyde Park and deals with fractious adult siblings, bringing up themes of race, sexuality, religion and, of course, family. In the play, a gay African-American man brings home his Swedish lover.
"I guess," Stovall said, "you could call this a kind of reverse 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.'"
Stovall has relatives in Hyde Park, but he says that his play actually is based more on his time living in Sweden.
"At the time, I was kind of wandering the globe," he said. "I had this experience in Sweden and I didn't think my Swedish was good enough to write about in those terms, so I basically flipped it.
"Many people think the African-American character is a stand-in for me. But really, that's more true of the Swedish character."
Since it bowed in Chicago in 2005 and also showed up in various workshops in Los Angeles, it's probably pushing the point to call "Immediate Family" a world premiere. Nonetheless, the play has been heavily revised. At Rashad's instigation, for example, the eight locations that Stovall had been using were distilled down to one setting.
"I came up in the Zimmerman world and Mary would just take you to the top of the mountaintop or wherever. Phylicia has more of an August Wilson sensibility. She convinced me that the house can be a character in the play," Stovall said.