Playwright Influenced by Southern Upbringing, Oprah Winfrey
Playwright Topher Payne describes his creative process as “kind of like quilting” and his play, “Angry Fags,” opening this weekend at Island City Stage is a crazy quilt.
“I’ll make a good solid piece that I may not have any idea how to use. I’ll start on another square and then another until it begins to reveal itself as I stitch them together,” the boyish writer explained.
Payne originally set out to write a play about gay roommates, based on his own experience, and the challenges to the close friendship when one becomes involved with another man.
“Your gay ‘bestie’ can be your one and only for quite some time—until they aren’t,” said Payne.
Separately, he had also wanted to tackle a work about terrorism, he just didn’t expect such disparate ideas to come together into one play.
“Angry Fags” is the story of Bennet, a speechwriter for Georgia’s only gay Congresswoman, and his roommate, Cooper. When Bennet’s ex-boyfriend is the victim of a hate crime, their rage ignites as they no longer accept “second class” legal status and turn the tables on the people who terrorize their community through homophobia and gay bashing. Their good intentions quickly escalate in unintended ways propelling the plot toward an explosive conclusion.
Although Payne currently lives in the cosmopolitan city of Atlanta, he grew up in a much smaller community, Kosciuszko, Mississippi, also the hometown of Oprah Winfrey. Like the talk show host and media mogul, he knew bigger things were ahead only in a larger city.
“The “Oprah” show was national when I was in first grade or second grade, so I grew up with this fantastic example of this woman who grew up just down the street,” Payne recalled of his childhood. “Realistically, there’s not a lot of theatrical opportunities in Mississippi and professionally, I always knew—and my mother says she always knew—that we were on borrowed time with me.”
Payne is the first to admit the play is informed by his experiences in that town of 7000 located a half hour from the nearest interstate highway.
He elaborated, “We’re often afraid of anything that reeks of ‘other’ in the South. Assimilation and being part of the community comes with very specific guidelines. A lot of that is born out of the lack of exposure to diversity and a lot of that we have to own as Southern communities as a conscious refusal.”
The writer noted in his silky baritone voice (he also records audiobooks) that kind of insular thinking cannot continue forever as younger generations of Southerners continue to adopt smartphones.
“If you’re of a mind and a heart to embrace other ideas and experiences, every resource imaginable is available to you on your phone. You can find out about anything. As Americans having that level of privilege and information, there’s no excuse for ignorance,” Payne said.
Until Southern society reaches that point, Payne is content to continue writing and challenging audiences to expand their horizons.
Island City Stage presents Topher Payne’s “Angry Fags” at The Abyss Theater, 2304 N. Dixie Highway in Wilton Manors on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 5 p.m. through Dec. 13. Tickets are $35 at IslandCityStage.org.