Drag, camp on deck in Process Theatre’s production of ‘Tribute Artist’

Process Theatre has opened a new show courtesy of a playwright who has put them on the map – drag sensation Charles Busch. The company has staged his “Die, Mommie, Die!,” “Psycho Beach Party and “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” before, so it’s natural they would stage his new show “The Tribute Artist.” Directed by Suehyla El-Attar, the comedy stars out performers DeWayne Morgan, Topher Payne and Cathe Hall Payne.

This is the first regional production of the comedy, following its off-Broadway run in 2014. “We were apparently the first ones who asked for it,” says Topher Payne. It was produced by Primary Stages, the same theater that staged Payne’s “Perfect Arrangement” in the fall. That was how Payne became familiar with it and he brought it to the attention of Morgan, Process’s artistic director.

“Artist” stars Morgan as Jimmy, a female impersonator that has worked for the last 10 years in a Vegas review bringing famous women such as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Marilyn Monroe to life. As the show opens he has been fired from his job.

“He is a little over the hill with it; everyone wants him to do younger, like Beyoncé” says Morgan.

Eventually, with an assist from his best friend Rita (Payne), Jimmy takes on the identity of his landlady (Payne) when she passes away in order to keep her townhouse in Greenwich Village.

Morgan jokes that it didn’t take long to get into character. “He is a lot nicer than me,” he laughs. “He is very naïve and childlike. He trusts everybody.”
Payne met Busch while he was in New York last fall. “I got to thank him for everything he’s done to keep me working,” laughs Payne.

“Artist” as a comedy retains Busch’s trademark sense of humor, according to Payne. This production is also one of the few times Busch has written a role for himself where he is playing a man. The piece cuts deeper.

“The comedy of this one has a social message underneath it – really exploring gender, the face we put out to the world vs. what may be going on inside. It’s as witty as ever but it’s smart.”

Morgan and Payne change it up a bit here from their usual roles. “I get to be the funny best friend in this one,” says Payne. “I am finally getting to play the sidekick role. Normally, I am the one front and center dealing with all the problems and DeWayne gets to come in and toss off a few good one-liners. This time we have shifted that dynamic.”

The two actors have developed a similar sense of humor after working together for so long. “That’s the incredible gift,” says Payne. “We have been doing shows together for 16 years, which is extraordinary to me. DeWayne has progressed into such amazing nuanced roles. We can switch back and forth. I think that’s what makes the dynamic work in ‘Designing Women’ as the Sugarbaker sisters. Sometimes one has the lead story and the other is lending support.”

Both men also love working with Cathe Hall Payne. “The basic set up of the show – a ‘Weekend at Bernies’ in drag – is centered on her character dying. Suehyla knew she wanted someone who could make a strong impact on the audience with a fairly minimal amount of stage time. Cathe could do that.”

“The Tribute Artist”
Through May 15
The Process Theatre at OnStage Atlanta
2969 East Ponce De Leon Ave. Decatur, GA 30030