Local playwright Topher Payne has a crowd-pleasing track record. For the past few years running, he's been the reader's choice playwright for most Atlanta publications, this one included. He served as Grand Marshall for the 2011 Atlanta Pride Parade. His recent mystery-comedy Swell Party, staged at Roswell's Georgia Ensemble Theatre, was the type of show you'd feel comfortable going to with your grandma. His next one, opening Feb. 17 at 7 Stages, is titled Angry Fags. Whether or not that's grandma-friendly material ... well, that probably depends on your grandma.
"My mother hasn't figured out how to brag about Angry Fags yet," says Payne over coffee at Manuel's Tavern. "She says, 'He has two world premieres in two months! Swell Party ... and ... and ... another one!'"
Angry Fags marks a departure, even a risk, for the prolific Atlanta-based playwright, who has developed a singular working style. With a near-constant output of broadly appealing plays often written specifically for Atlanta audiences, the self-described "goofy ginger" has built up a faithful core of local fans for his clever, zingy Southern comedies, often in the vein of Steel Magnolias, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, or Designing Women. Think boozy Southern matriarchs, garden clubs, catfights, sister bonding, beauty parlors, yadda-yadda ya-ya.
"In the past, I've been doing a lot of commissioned works where I've been writing for a very specific audience from page one," Payne says. "Angry Fags was just this thing ... I wasn't thinking of writing for a potential audience, I wasn't thinking in terms of a producing theater. I was just getting back to why I write anything at all: Something didn't make sense to me, and it wouldn't until I started sorting it out on paper."
The new show tells the story of two gay men whose mutual friend is the victim of a hate crime. Facing a biased legal system and a reactionary cultural climate, the characters take matters into their own hands through violent revenge, evolving into a pattern of political extremism and terrorism.
"No one is afraid of gay guys," says Payne. "Gay men aren't seen as men in that way. We're seen as a separate category. ... What does it take to seem like a credible threat? If I give them a gun? If I give them a bomb? If 50 of them take to the street? What's it going to take for you to take them seriously? In that regard, it's very different for me."
The resulting work wasn't a fit for the theaters Payne regularly writes for, so he showed it to Heidi Howard, then the educational director at 7 Stages: She decided she wanted it as her first project as the newly placed artistic director, a position she assumed at the beginning of 2013. "They're really the only theater in town that would put Angry Fags on a marquee and own it," says Payne.
The play has found a home, but whether Payne's audiences will follow him there remains to be seen. "The title is also a warning sign," he says. "If I could have thought of a title with a bigger set of balls than Angry Fags, I would have called it that. There's a reputation I've worked hard to build, but I feel this isn't speaking to a different audience as much as this story was something I needed to tell. I'm tackling what I consider the greatest frustration of my life, the roadblock that stands in the way of me living the life I feel I deserve, so it's more intensely personal. It's harder to make that palatable. It's dirty, and it's violent. It's getting down to the basest instincts because it cuts me to the quick."
Still, no matter what local audiences make of the new direction, Payne is determined to keep Atlanta as his home base. "This is my artistic home," he says. "Everybody leaves, but I don't ever want to be another one that leaves. If I was told, 'Write all you want but you'll never be produced out of this city,' I would keep writing. Atlanta as a city has not yet even begun to embrace the possibility of what we could be as a center for American theater. I want to convince other people that staying is smart. And part of that is the ability to produce a show like Angry Fags, the ability to reach out to a very different audience than I have before."