Bash­ing back

World pre­miere ‘An­gry Fags’ asks: Is any­one really afraid of gay guys?

GA Voice - - Directory Listings - by Laura Dou­glas-Brown

To­pher Payne doesn’t seem like an an­gry fag. But then, at first glance, nei­ther do Ben­nett Riggs and Cooper Harlow, the main characters of Payne’s new play, “An­gry Fags,” open­ing Feb. 21 at 7 Stages The­atre.

They pic­nic in the park. They ban­ter about cheese and wine. They tease each other about ev­ery­thing from let­ter writ­ing to dat­ing with the lov­ing sar­casm gay men seem to have per­fected. Then they set off a bomb. “I knew I wanted to write some­thing about friend­ships be­tween gay men, and then I had a com­pletely sep­a­rate idea about the roots of ex­trem­ism and what drives peo­ple to des­per­ate acts of vi­o­lence on a mas­sive scale, just be­cause we are so in­un­dated with that on the news ev­ery day,” Payne says. “I did not ex­pect them to end up be­ing the same play.”

“Do­mes­ti­cally Dis­turbed,” Payne’s award­win­ning bi­weekly col­umn for GA Voice, ex­plores life with his hus­band, dog, crazy neigh­bor and ex­tended South­ern fam­ily.

The play he ini­tially set out to write could be seen as a prequel to the col­umn, build­ing on what Payne ex­pe­ri­enced when he be­gan dat­ing the man who would be­come his spouse, af­ter seven years of liv­ing with his best friend.

“There is this breakup that hap­pens be­cause you found your au­then­tic part­ner for life that you don’t really see coming,” Payne says. “In same-sex re­la­tion­ships com­bined with same-sex friend­ship, it is this really messy, muddy gray area that no one ever told you how you are sup­posed to han­dle.”

But what started as a chance to ex­am­ine what hap­pens to gay friends when one gets a boyfriend turned into a play about two gay men’s vi­o­lent re­tal­i­a­tion when a friend is at­tacked out­side a bar.

It’s set against the back­drop of a po­lit­i­cal race be­tween a les­bian Ge­or­gia state se­na­tor — played by ra­dio per­son­al­ity and GA Voice colum­nist Melissa Carter in her first act­ing role — and the per­fect GOP chal­lenger.

The as­sault leads Ben­nett (Ja­cob York) and Cooper (Johnny Drago) “to this con­ver­sa­tion about how no­body is ac­tu­ally afraid of gay guys,” Payne says, so they set out to change the per­cep­tion that gay men are weak and won’t fight back.

The play­wright doesn’t con­done his characters’ vi­o­lence, but he un­der­stands what in- spires them to be­come “An­gry Fags.”

Payne re­calls be­ing on tour with a play in Ore­gon when he was “just jumped by a cou­ple of random guys,” and also notes the deep ex­haus­tion that comes from con­stantly liv­ing as a sec­ond-class cit­i­zen.

“We talk so much about the rights we know we are owed, and the idea that things are go­ing to get bet­ter — it gets bet­ter, it gets bet­ter, it gets bet­ter,” he says. “I don’t think we have a lot of con­ver­sa­tion about the pure anger and frus­tra­tion of be­ing in that sit­u­a­tion of be­ing so close, but know­ing how much far­ther we have to go.”

Frank but funny

The play’s ti­tle is in some ways a warn­ing to au­di­ences about the level of frank dis­cus­sion they can ex­pect, and just see­ing the words “An­gry Fags” loom­ing over Lit­tle 5 Points on the 7 Stages mar­quee is al­ready draw­ing re­ac­tion.

Still, the no-holds-barred ap­proach made Payne fear the play might never get pro­duced, be­fore he hap­pened to have a copy of the script in his car when he for­tu­itously ran into Heidi Howard at a party. The play will be her first pro­duc­tion as 7 Stages’ new artis­tic di­rec­tor. The ti­tle im­pacted the cast, too. “I never use the f-word, so it cer­tainly got my at­ten­tion,” says Carter, who, like Payne, takes a gen­tler tone in her GA Voice col­umn. “But once I read the play I un­der­stood why it needed a provoca­tive ti­tle.”

Au­di­ences shouldn’t go to “An­gry Fags” ex­pect­ing a typ­i­cal happy end­ing — which Payne says is dif­fi­cult even for him as the writer.

“I al­ways root for my characters. I want them to come out OK. But there is no way that two peo­ple mak­ing the choices that Ben­nett and Cooper make in the course of this story — there is no way for them to come out just fine,” he says.

“Mak­ing the choice that com­mu­ni­ca­tion is no longer the goal — dom­i­nance is — is a very Amer­i­can thing to do,” Payne con­tin­ues. “And once you make the choice to see the world in terms of who you are bet­ter than, or who you are will­ing to stand on top of to get where you want to be, ab­so­lutely noth­ing good is go­ing to hap­pen.”

But view­ers also shouldn’t ex­pect sim­ply a somber take on so­cial in­jus­tices. While the topic is se­ri­ous, Payne prom­ises “An­gry Fags” is “still very much a com­edy,” al­beit a dark one.

“It’s my num­ber one be­lief as a writer, that no one lis­tens un­til you make them laugh, be­cause it dis­arms you,” Payne says. “Peo­ple are more open to re­ceiv­ing what you have to say if you present it in a way they want to hear.”

Anger and ac­tion

Part of what Payne wants au­di­ences to hear — along with laugh­ter — is the pos­si­bil­ity that his characters could have chan­neled their anger dif­fer­ently.

“Change doesn’t come from the ma­jor­ity hav­ing warm fuzzy feel­ings about you; it comes from them be­ing afraid of the con­se­quences of stand­ing in your way,” Payne says. “I think that is an au­then­tic ar­gu­ment worth ex­press­ing and hav­ing con­ver­sa­tions about.

“The play then takes that to its nat­u­ral ex­treme: If no one ac­tu­ally has con­ver­sa­tions about it, those feel­ings of fight­ing back, left unchecked, can lead to in­creas­ingly bad de­ci­sions.”

For Carter, in­side the com­edy lies a cau­tion­ary mes­sage — “that words and ac­tions are in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant, and be­ing aware of how they might hurt oth­ers.”

“But I think there is also a mes­sage that act­ing upon a mis­un­der­stand­ing is one of the most dan­ger­ous things we can prac­tice,” she adds.

Like Ben­nett and Cooper, we all have good rea­sons to be an­gry fags. Payne’s play gives us per­mis­sion to own that anger, while also in­spir­ing us to pon­der what we do with it be­sides let­ting it turn us into the very thing we are fight­ing against.

“I want au­di­ences leav­ing the show to be able to go back and see where a dif­fer­ent choice could have been made,” Payne says. “You don’t just have a feel­ing of hope­less­ness at the end of the play, but what do you learn from that?

“My hope is the play would in­spire con­ver­sa­tions.”

Above: In ‘An­gry Fags,’ Ben­nett Riggs ( Ja­cob York) starts dat­ing Adam Low­ell ( John Ben­zinger) — but what about his best friend and fel­low ter­ror­ist, Cooper? Left: GA Voice colum­nists To­pher Payne and Melissa Carter team up as Carter makes her act­ing de­but as a gay state se­na­tor. (Pho­tos by Stun­gun Pho­tog­ra­phy)

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