Playwright and sometime-actor Topher Payne returns to Mississippi from Atlanta next weekend to see the Clinton Brick Street Players perform his play "Beached Wails" at Clinton's Old Junior High School Auditorium June 9-11 and 15-17.
Where did you grow up? When did you leave Mississippi?
I grew up in Kosciusko—I went away to boarding school, first in Connecticut and then in California. After I came back, I worked at New Stage Theatre for two years from 1997 to 1999 and then relocated to Atlanta. My first year (at New Stage), I worked in the scene shop, and I assisted in building all the sets. And the second year, I was with their touring company and did their arts and education tours around the state.
How often do you get back to Mississippi?
Not nearly enough. The last time I was home was at Christmas. I had been doing a show here in Atlanta the previous two Christmases, and my mom finally put her foot down. My sister lives in North Carolina, and we try to coordinate holidays so my mom has at least one child at the table. My parents moved to Bolton to be closer to my extended family, so they're all a stone's throw away from each other now. They are slowly developing a family compound in Bolton on a family lake, so they have this kind of wonderful, idyllic existence. Coming home is really like a vacation now—they're in the middle of nowhere, and you wake up, and it's sunny and beautiful.
Was New Stage the start of your career?
I went to Idyllwild Arts Academy in California and majored in theater. New Stage is where I began writing, when John Maxwell was still the artistic director there. He was the one that encouraged me to start putting ideas on paper. So "Beached Wails" I started writing while I was still there. One nice thing about having an in-house company is there are always people around to read new pages.
How is Mississippi important to the story of "Beached Wails"?
The sisters in the show are from Mississippi, and the basic story is that every year the four of them take a trip together to Gulf Shores, Alabama, to get away from family and chores and responsibility, and this is their vacation. But of course they're inconvenienced by a hurricane. Mississippi is important to the story because they speak the language of it. There's a very distinct sound that exists there that you don't find anywhere else in the country. It can be really frustrating to see one of Beth Henley plays, and it's set in Mississippi, and you hear an actor trying to do their version of the southern accent, and it just doesn't sound right. There's a very specific sound in the Mississippi dialect that is unlike anything else. … If you just try to get by with general Hollywood "southern," it just doesn't work.
How is Mississippi still a part of your life?
I write a column ("Maybe It's Just Me" in David Magazine) here in Atlanta, and I get lots of letters from people from Mississippi —there's such a camaraderie with those people. Because if you call that home, then anyone else who does too is like family. It's not just a polite "hello"—it's "Oh my God, I'm from Greenville!" And I just love it. Every time I have an opening in Atlanta, I have a caravan from Mississippi of family and friends and hangers-on, and the theaters where I put on shows here count on it—"Payne, reservation for 40!"
You can head off into the world from Mississippi, and you have an endless team of cheerleaders who want you to succeed. Every summer in Central Park they have the Mississippi picnic, where all the natives and transplants of Mississippi who live in Manhattan get together and have fried chicken and potato salad and proper sweet tea. It's nice to be part of the group of people out in the world who understand that being from Mississippi can be a positive thing—No, I didn't "escape;" I didn't have to go over the wall.
Do you have any interaction with this performance? Will you be there?
Oh, absolutely, I'm coming to the show! With all they turn out for me in Atlanta, you think I can't do the same for them? Naomi Barnette, who is playing Brenda in the show, was one of my childhood heroes when I was growing up—she was the only actress I knew. She was a long-time friend of my mother's, and the first play I ever wrote—this was in 1997—they produced at Late Night New Stage, and she was in it. So the first person I ever attached the label of actress to was willing to lend her performance to my work, and now 10 years later we come back to same emotional thing. I am amazed that I can provide her this opportunity, but the fact that Ms. Naomi is playing this role is like this huge thing for me—like, oh wow, I've made it!
Remember Topher in Capitol City Improv (RIP)? They used to do shows at The Living Room. He was a hillarious Eudora Welty!
- Jenny Burnham