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,” which opened 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 bout 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 award-winning 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 inspires 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 and — 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.”
Top photo: In ‘Angry Fags,’ Bennett Riggs (Jacob York) starts dating Adam Lowell (John Benzinger) — but what about his best friend and fellow terrorist, Cooper? Right: 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)