David Lee Nelson had a secret, and even at age 33, he dreaded the prospect of sharing it with his conservative father. But he knew that he would eventually have to came out of the closet — as a Democrat.
Nelson, who now lives in the über-liberal Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg, remembers having painful phone conversations with his dad, a diehard Republican living in Nelson’s hometown of Greenville, S.C. “For a while, it had just been me going, ‘Yeah …. Yeah … Yeah … Mmmhmm,'” Nelson says. “It was really sad for me because he would talk to me like I still agreed with him. And this man is my hero, like I love him so much, and he’s done everything for me always. I just didn’t feel like it was right to not be honest with him anymore.”
In his one-man stage show The Elephant in My Closet, Nelson tells the story of his transformation from Upstate Reaganite to New York City labor organizer, framing it in the history of the Republican Party and building toward a climactic confession to his father. He insists that the performance is not “a liberal play for liberals” but rather a play about political identity. He doesn’t make fun of Republicans, and he’s more than just a comedian milking the presidential campaign season for cheap laughs. While Nelson has a background in stand-up comedy (Dallas Magazine once described him as “like a young Andy Kaufman”), he is quick to point out that Elephant is a one-man theater piece, directed by longtime collaborator and roommate Adam Knight.
A 2000 graduate of the College of Charleston theater program, Nelson has returned to Piccolo Spoleto almost every year since 2006 with a variety of comedy acts and one-man shows. His most recent appearance was in 2010’s Status Update, a gut-punch of a comedy piece about getting divorced and posting the news on Facebook.
Nelson describes Greenville, home of Bob Jones University and many other conservative institutions, as “the San Francisco of the Right.” The whole state of South Carolina, he says, breathes a rarefied right-wing air. “I really feel like we’re the hipsters of the Republican Party,” he says. “We voted for Newt Gingrich, and Newt Gingrich has big ideas. He’s not Rick Santorum, like, religious. This guy wants to colonize the moon … We started the Civil War. We started it. We’re a party of ideas.”
At the College of Charleston, he was not politically active, spending most of his time absorbed in the theater. It wasn’t until after graduation, when he joined the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, that he began to talk politics. It started as a defense mechanism when other actors hailing from New York and Los Angeles would mock the South or bash people who voted for George W. Bush. “I was like, ‘Well, my dad is voting for George W. Bush,'” Nelson says. “I kind of became this big conservative defending my father.” He now sees humor in that station of his life: A starving actor making $900 a month, surrounded by gay and liberal friends, he had become a devoted right-wing apologist.
What changed his mind since then? The Iraq War was part of it. He took another step toward conversion after moving to New York and working as a private tutor for privileged children on the Upper East Side. “Your political views start to change when you become a staff member for an 11-year-old,” Nelson says.
Nelson abstained from voting in the 2004 presidential election and then fretted over who to vote for in 2008. Finally, in April 2012, he broke the news to his dad. The agony leading up to that moment was very real, although it sounded hilarious when he described it to his New York friends. That inner turmoil became the engine for Elephant. He says, “How do you reconcile these incredibly different worldviews over pancakes after church?”