Clear vision: A Q&A with Paul Oakley Stovall

Photograph by Liz Liguori

Paul Oakley Stovall's musical Clear: a new musical experience, which begins a three-week workshop run at Dixon Place on February 3, weaves the personal and the political into a modern American quilt. In addition to writing the show's book, lyrics and music—three other composers, including Passing Strange's Stew, also contributed to the score—Stovall plays the lead role of Lawson: an out-of-work actor whose gay and black identities are thrown into relief when he becomes involved in an electoral campaign. Although Clear's inspirational African-American senator and presidential candidate  is a woman, the musical is loosely based on Stovall's experience as an event organizer for Barack Obama. We talked with the tall, gregarious writer-performer yesterday about how his show's threads came together.

Time Out New York: When did you start working on Clear?
Paul Oakley Stovall:
It actually started in 2006 as a different project that I was writing with Stew, based on the life of Bayard Rustin, the civil rights activist, who was responsible for a lot of who we knew Martin Luther King to be. Bayard was his mentor: Bayard went to India and learned the tenets of peaceful demonstration from Gandhi's son, and brought it back and taught it to Martin Luther King. And he was an out gay man in the Forties and Fifties, which I think is kind of why nobody knows who he is.

How did that evolve into what we're seeing now?
Stew wanted to take the idea of the show, make it less literal and write a different project; that was great, I was part of that for a while as an actor. And I took the songs that we had written together. And I started thinking, Okay, I'm listening to these songs, and some of these are specifically about Bayard, but a lot of them are just about a strong-willed, politically-minded, independent, out, proud, stubborn gay black man.

Who could that have reminded you of?
Exactly. So I started thinking, Well, I don't really want to write an autobiographical musical, but these songs are so inside of me and I feel like I've gotta do something. Then my work in the political realm began to swim into the soup. And Bayard was in politics so a lot of the songs already had political themes, themes about activating people.

And when you say your work in politics, you mean with the Obama campaign?
Yes. I was on the advance staff of the campaign. And then I worked on the inauguration committee for a couple months to set that up, and the President and First Lady still have to travel so they still need advance people now and then. But it's not a full-time thing.

Would you say that the show is pro-Obama?
You could say that. [Laughs] I would say it's pro-America. It's my patriotic statement. And it may not be one that some people want to hear—I don't mean just Republicans, some Democrats might not want to hear it. We really go there with race relations, and with the relationship between the gay and straight communities. We try to really talk about it. And I've tried to weave a tale about how to take responsibility for yourself—a lot of people think they're doing it when they're really not—and not to live in fear. The entire country is living in fear.

If the Obamas came to see the show, what might they think of it?
I have been consumed at different stages of this project with what other people would think. But my heart is in the right place. I have no illusions about them coming to see my show at this point—believe me, they have better things to do—but if someday that happened I hope they would be proud and understand that everything I wrote came from how much I believe in them and how much I want to support them in the way I can do that best: through the arts, and through expressing myself in this way.