Payne says he grew up a sissy kid in Mississippi and his own experiences helped shape the new play.
“I went through a couple years of hell in Mississippi public schools,” he admits. “It was constant. One of the things I wanted to explore in this show was the perspective of the educator in that scenario. Why do some teachers step in, while others choose to ignore the abuse of queer youth by their peers? In this story, it led to a really interesting story for one of the teachers.”
The writer says it has been a learning experience to create a straight character talking about their perception of the gay community.
“It forces me to be empathetic, and really try to understand where other people are coming from,” he says.
Payne’s play won the Essential Theatre’s Playwriting Award competition, which guaranteed it a production this season.
Friends with a lot of teachers, Payne has listened and digested their tales.
“I’ve collected a heap of stories over the years,” he says. “When I heard an NPR report about the disciplinary process in New York public schools, I thought, ‘Oh, baby. Make that one a play.’ In a pressure cooker like that, strangers trapped together, the funny stuff gets way funnier, and the conflicts get brutal.”
‘Best Little Whorehouse’
The musical “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” has just opened at Onstage Atlanta with a major LGBT contingent. Its director Charlie Miller is gay, its leading man Jeffery Brown is gay, and its Miss Mona herself is a lesbian – Cathe Hall Payne.
Inspired by the real life chicken ranch in Texas, “Whorehouse” was a stage musical before becoming a movie with Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton. Brown stars as Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd, who is having a relationship with Mona, who runs the noted town brothel.
Brown says he is nothing at all like the dim-witted sheriff, but Payne feels she can relate a lot to her character.
“I am cut from that cloth,” she says. “My grandmother shot my grandfather in the ass – these are my folks!”
“Whorehouse” is meant to entertain, but is very topical as well, says Brown. He notes the “hypocrisy” in the musical of politicians railing against the whorehouse but going to it at night.
Its says feels the show is a perfect fit.
“We had a great run with ‘The Great American Trailer Park Musical’ last summer and we wanted to do something like it,” Miller says.
It’s the first time the musical been performed in Atlanta since Neighborhood Playhouse staged a version a decade ago and the Fox Theatre hosted an awful Ann-Margret touring production just before that.
Besides its leading man and woman, “Whorehouse” stars openly gay DeWayne Morgan as Melvin P. Thorpe, who kicks up his heels in the well-known number, “The Sidestep.”
The cast and crew are happy to be able to stage “Whorehouse” at their current location. The Suburban Plaza – where the company performs – is being gutted to make way for the new Walmart in Decatur.
Miller says they have known about the situation for a while but were assured they would be able to finish the run. They anticipate being in the space until after the Christmas season, but are actively seeking a new home.
Top photo: Topher Payne’s ‘Evelyn in Purgatory’ opens July 5 via Essential Theatre at Actor’s Express. (courtesy photo)