Dallas — Playwright Topher Payne grew up in Kosciusko, Mississippi, a town that still has fewer than 10,000 residents. But it was the hometown to one very famous person: Oprah Winfrey.
“It’s fun as a tidbit but it’s also hugely significant,” says Payne, the author of Perfect Arrangement, the play making its regional premiere by Uptown Players this week. “I was six years old when Oprah’s show began, so I spent my entire childhood with a very prominent example of someone from my hometown, who came from modest circumstances, and who became the most famous woman in the world. It’s a heck of a role model.”
Payne isn’t concerned about being Oprah-famous, but he has made waves in the theater world for his plays, which usually—but not always—tackle LGBTQ+ themes and/or characters in provocative ways. Perfect Arrangement has had about two dozen productions since it won the M. Elizabeth Osborn New Play Award given by the American Theatre Critics Association in 2014 (this is the award that Dallas playwright Jonathan Norton won two years later for Mississippi Goddamn).
Perfect Arrangement is about the “Lavender Scare” in the 1950s, happening at the same time as McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee were investigating celebrities and other Americans thought to be Communists. At the same time, government workers were investigated for being gay, because if they had a secret that could be exposed, it opened them up to disloyalty.
Payne’s play uses the lens of a 1950s-style sitcom, as two State Department Employees, Bob (Kevin Moore) and Norma (Olivia Grace Murphy) are having to identify “sexual deviants” in their ranks. Except that they are gay, and married to each other’s partners in a cover-up. Uptown’s production is directed by B.J. Cleveland and also features Alyssa Cavasos, Bradley Campbell, Lindsay Hayward, Matt Holmes and Jacie Hood Wenzel. It opens Aug. 24 and runs through Sept. 2 at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.
It sets up a trio of plays coming up at Uptown that also deal with gay history in America, as part of Gay History Month (October), and follow Dallas' Pride Week: The previously announced Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika (Sept. 29-Oct. 7) and the newly announced repertory productions of James Lecesne’s The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, starring Terry Martin in 14 roles about a detective searching for clues about the title character (Oct. 13-21) and Drew Fornarola and Scott Elmegreen’s Straight (Oct. 14-21), which deals with fidelity, sexuality and identity in "post- equality" America. The latter two productions will happen in Bryant Hall, behind the Kalita Humphreys Theater. (Get tickets here.)
As for Perfect Arrangement, TheaterJones had a phone conversation with playwright Payne, who has been based in Atlanta for two decades, to discuss the play, its themes and his work.
TheaterJones: Tell me how you learned about the Lavender Scare and decided to write a play about it?
Topher Payne: It was originally from David K. Johnson’s The Lavender Scare, which I read an advance copy of when I was working at Outright, the gay and lesbian book store here in Atlanta. When I read David’s book I was just mortified, that this was a part of American history and I had absolutely no idea about it. The Red Scare and witch hunts are part of our common language, and the lavender scare was right alongside it and never made it into any history book.
When I started writing it in 2009, I wanted to learn more about it, and share that with audiences. I never anticipated that it would become 10 years later I would still be talking about it.
Why was it called the Lavender Scare?
Because of the phrase “lavender lads,” which was the official use of it at the time. And “pinko” was a euphemism for “Communist.”
Once I won the Osborn award, shortly thereafter we had the off-Broadway production, and I had the opportunity to meet people who were on the other side of this. They were working on the security board, and were 10-15 years on the other side of the events of the play. We’re talking about a policy that was in place until Bill Clinton was president. Remember, this was 18 years before Stonewall.
It was interesting how thoroughly convinced they were as well-intentioned, patriotic, government servants, that these people were security risks because they could be blackmailed. And the first step toward gaining control over another person is convincing that person that who they are is shameful. If you can convince someone to be ashamed of who they are you can get them do whatever you want. The threat of blackmail was very real.
There so much relevance to today’s world, with the term “witch hunt” being bandied about like a shuttlecock. But even after marriage equality and growing acceptance, there’s still a stigma of being out as a gay actor in Hollywood.
There are fantastic examples people in the entertainment industry who live openly and enjoy very prolific careers; I would like us to reach a point where [all gay actors could have that].
Did the script change from first festival performance in Atlanta through off-Broadway production?
That was my first New York production [of any play]. The thing that I learned is what money buys you is time. We had time in the rehearsal hall, we had preview performances where we had several weeks to refine and reflect upon what the audiences were telling us. But there has to be a very purpose-driven use of that time. You have to have a process that drives it forward.
Growing up in small-town Mississippi, what was your plan for leaving and pursuing theater?
I always intended to leave, I always wanted to tell stories, but I didn’t know what meant. For me that meant moving to Atlanta, which was the biggest city I could personally imagine going to to live there.
When I was 17 I started working in professional theater in Jackson, Mississippi. I came to Atlanta at 19 and started knocking on doors here. Even as I was picking up tech work and auditioning, I considered writing as something I did for myself. I struggled with what I now call “my right to write,” that I would have any place to cull an audience together to share something. But eventually I met the right people who encouraged me in that journey and took chances on me. The only way you write a good play is that you write a bad play and make it better. That was true for me 20 years ago, and it’s still true for me today.
Perfect Arrangement is presented as a 1950s sitcom. Why that choice?
Once I started reading the newspaper accounts from 1950 to 1952, it is so strange between the world that was presented in the world of popular entertainment, versus the one presented in the newspaper. There is no sugar-coating in the news coverage of this; it’s striking in its paranoia. There was so much fear and disgust in the quotes from politicians at the time. And then you think of the universe that Beaver Cleaver and Lucy and Ricky were living in. Lucille Ball was accused of being a communist and would leave the hearings and go back to the I Love Lucy set. That duality was fascinating to me.
You’ve written other plays, but why is this one still your most produced work around the country?
I was working on the first draft when George W. Bush was president. And since then, this play has seen several versions of this country that I honestly never thought I’d see in my lifetime, in the positive and the negative. Things I would never thought I was see; things I have literally danced in my driveway over, and that I’ve sat agape in silent horror over—and that’s in the span of 10 years.
The thing that really resonates now about the play is that everything falls apart for the characters because of an outside force, when they are convinced to stop trusting each other. These days that seems really resonant.
Tell me about another play of yours that has had several productions, including at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, with a provocative title: Angry Fags.
It shares DNA with Perfect Arrangement in that it uses humor to make something that is horrifying a little more palatable. [AF] deals with what happens when people start using the tactics of their oppressors; what you find is a cautionary tale about making jokes that are as awful as the peole who have been fighting against us. We all have that impulse. [AF] predates Michelle [Obama] telling us “when they go low, we go high.” Ultimately it’s the story of what happens when we go low, too, what happens is we’re all rolling around in the gutter. We are smart people. You want to fight as dirty as they do. When you’re smarter than them you can find dirtier ways to do them. I understand that have that impulse, I have that feeling, I always know that absolutely nothing good with from it.
We’ve seen plays with titles like The Motherfucker with the Hat and Fucking A on and off-Broadway, but the other f-word is so loaded. Why use it?
I know. This is not about reclamation. There are artists I admire a great deal who try to take words back, but this word is considered hate speech and that’s exactly what it should be. I called it Angry Fags because it sounds like a punchline. It deals with toxic masculinity in gay men. The title of the show serves as a warning and an invitation that this is not going to be a polite conversation. Do you know how long it took me to get used to saying the title of my own? My mother still won’t say it.