Paul Oakley Stovall: From the White House to the Stage

By Brandon Voss

Originally published on Advocate.com November 23 2009 9:05 AM ET

Can a gay person who works for President Obama create and perform an autobiographical musical on the side? Yes, he can! Paul Oakley Stovall, a GLAAD Media Award nominee for his play As Much as You Can, now presents CLEAR, a “pop poem opera” featuring music by Tony winners Stew and Tom Kitt, at New York City’s Joe’s Pub on Monday, November 30. Stovall, a 40-year-old Chicago native, explains how his duties as a White House advance associate have inspired his artistic endeavors.

Advocate.com: Which elements of your life story do you explore in CLEAR?
Paul Oakley Stovall: I take the audience on a journey from my recognizing the adversity that’s inherent with being a black person to realizing the obstacle of my gay identity. Then I was in a horrible accident where I was shot and both my legs were paralyzed, so for a certain amount of time I was also in wheelchair. So I go from all that to now working for the first black president of the United States.

How does your sexuality inform the show?
One of the primary through-lines in the piece is recognizing the relationship between my sexuality and all other facets of my life. I attempt to leave behind the victimhood and shame that have sort of shadowed me over the years. My sexuality is one of my blessings, man; it’s not something to be tolerated or accepted by others.

What do you hope people take away from the piece?
I hope that people walk away — skip and hum away, actually — from this piece with a sense of wonderment about their own lives. I want people to be inspired to go back, excavate their own life experiences, and rediscover their own beauty and power.

Was the show inspired by any other artists or performers?
The show’s kind of in the vein of Sandra Bernhard. It’s structured and very solid, but it’s also freewheeling and very connected to the audience. You definitely get the feeling that you’d never see the same show twice.

You were on the campaign trail with Obama and now work as an advance associate for the White House. What does that job entail?
I’m the liaison between the White House and whatever city that the president, the first lady, or the vice president are planning to visit. So I’m there about 10 to 12 days in advance of them, working with our embassy and with the local media to arrange the media coverage.

But you’re established as a playwright and a performer. What led you to the White House?
A little bit of luck and little bit of opportunism. I had a friend who had recently burned out on D.C., so he moved to New York and was working in retail with me. Then he got called to work on the Obama campaign. About six months into it, he called me up and asked me to come help out with an event. I did what he asked me to do, I submitted my résumé, and one thing led to another.

How do you find the time and energy to put on a show?
Being a part of this campaign and administration is probably the most inspiring thing that’s happened in my life. I’m constantly stimulated, meeting new people, seeing different parts of the world — Istanbul, Kosovo, Prague, Copenhagen — so I can’t help but be creative. There is no exhaustion.

How would you characterize your relationship with the first family?
I don’t really have a relationship with them. I’m not like, “Hey, girl!”

Michelle would probably love it if you chatted her up like that.
Michelle loves everyone, and I have a feeling that if a situation ever came up and we started talking, that would be completely fine. That just isn’t my job. But just from being around her, I can tell you she’s a fantastic woman.

Have you encountered a lot of other gay people working for the White House?
Well, there are plenty of gay people that work in the area where I work, and most are open, as far as I know. I’m certainly completely out to everyone — Secret Service included. I don’t have any problems at all.

Would you feel comfortable bringing a boyfriend around your colleagues?
You could absolutely do that.

As you know, Obama has been criticized for not doing enough to further gay rights. Is the gay community being too impatient?
He’s been clear from the beginning that it’s our movement and we have to make it a social imperative. I think that’s the right way for him to look at it. People forget that Abraham Lincoln did not magically free the slaves; things were bubbling up to the point where he had to do it. Yeah, it’s moving slowly, but good things come to those who wait.

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Could he have done more to help prevent Question 1 from passing in Maine?
I swear to you I’m not being diplomatic, but I trust Barack Obama. He’s always a few steps ahead. When the gay community takes actions that show we can’t take it anymore, he’ll move right into action.

Obama recently announced 25 new appointees to the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities. Why weren’t you on that list?
I asked myself the same thing. [Laughs] No, I was very impressed with the names I recognized and the ones I needed to Google.

Any glaring omissions?
Whoopi Goldberg would’ve been great.

As part of the 247 Townhall “If I Were President” video series that preceded Obama’s victory, you stated that if you were president, you’d “bring arts back to all schools.” How’s Obama doing on that front?
I’ll say this: When the president of the United States takes his wife on a date to see theater in New York City — and not Mamma Mia! but Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, a three-hour drama by an American playwright — that sends a message to the world that theater is cool.

What are the chances they’ll come see your show at Joe’s Pub?
[Laughs] Less than zero.

For tickets and more info on CLEAR, log on to JoesPub.com.