The Underwood typewriter inked on Topher Payne’s arm is a tribute to the first machine that committed his stories to paper. The original was his grandfather’s and “since I can’t find a ribbon for it …” he shrugs, laughs fondly and considers – for a moment – the writing path that winds from small-town Mississippi to Off-Broadway, the Hallmark Channel and beyond.
“This is the scrapbook I travel around the world with,” says Payne, launching into a tattoo tour of connections to his storytelling career. There’s the self-start button from that same typewriter. Blooms honor his beloved beagle, Daisy.
Kudzu wraps it all up. “It’s uniquely Southern, a little bit of a nuisance and completely indestructible,” he says of the vine. “And, I think that’s something worth aspiring to.”
With tendrils just as strong, Payne’s Mississippi roots have pulled him back to his home state with “Morningside,” a comedy opening New Stage Theatre’s 53rd season. Payne is in the director’s seat, too, for this one. Set in an upscale Atlanta neighborhood, “Morningside” digs into the worst baby shower ever for big laughs and big truths about family, society and the minefields in both. The show runs Sept. 11-23.
Payne, 38, is back at his first job site with this one. As a 17-year-old kid from Kosciusko, he landed at the door of New Stage Theatre, the sole professional theater in the state, bound and determined to forge a career in the arts. He’d gone to Idyllwild Arts Academy in southern California for two years as a teen.
“It was an extraordinary opportunity and I was a terrible student,” he says. “God bless John Maxwell,” who gave him a job as a scene shop intern for the 1997-98 season. The following year, he toured with New Stage’s Arts-in-Education program as an actor and started writing what became his first play, “Beached Whales.” Its first reading happened in New Stage’s Hewes Room.
That was 20 years ago. Two weeks ago, Payne is back in the Hewes Room, watching nine actresses bring his “Morningside” to funny, poignant life in rehearsal for the main stage production.
Twenty years ago, he was running the lights. Now, he’s running the show.
Cleve and Sheryl Payne, the playwright’s parents, met in Jackson and moved to his Kosciusko hometown to start their family. Payne’s grandfather had worked at the post office in Kosciusko, and his dad went on to do the same — roles that, in a town that size, were known to all.
Payne’s first real exposure to the power of storytelling came in the First United Methodist Church Kosciusko’s annual passion play, “His Last Days” — “an outdoor pageant where Jesus ascends to heaven in a cherry-picker. I mean, this was high tech!” he says, “and it was a profound experience for the audience.
“I learned from a very early age, both from my family and from my church, that if you want to convey something that really is meaningful to you, then the best way to do it is to tell a story. That’s how I learned my family history. That’s how I learned my spiritual practices. And of course, being a native Mississippian means that you come from a long line of storytellers that have literally changed the world.
“For me, the path just made sense. Frankly, I was amazed anybody does anything else.”
That love of storytelling plus ingrained values about the treatment of other people made all the difference in his career trajectory, Payne says. “Mississippians at their best have a way of being and a way of creating community that makes space for delightfully unique individuals.
“There is a celebration of eccentricity in Mississippi that I find quite endearing.” That appreciation isn’t always a common thing, he says. “As a result, I don’t write stories with villains. I can’t. I have too much empathy for any character that I’m putting on a stage or on a screen.” His characters can still do horrible things — to comedic or tragic effect — “but there’s a core understanding and appreciation for and of their humanity.
“If there’s anything that I get right as a writer, it’s that.”
Connection and influences
“Morningside” is brought to New Stage thanks to the theater’s Eudora Welty New Play Series. The legendary writer’s spirit weighs in, too.
Payne’s Mississippi writer influences? “Welty, Welty, Welty,” he says like a chant. He served wine at a party at Welty’s house once, and still holds dear a photo of her with New Stage founder Jane Reid-Petty, laughing about some private joke.
“All Mississippi communities are secret matriarchies,” he says, where strong women are the real decision-makers.
A baby shower’s women-centric setting proved irresistible. “Morningside” delves into some of the contemporary challenges women face, when tradition and social expectations clash with progress and personal desires. The new play has had just one previous production, and Payne relishes the chance to perfect the script. “I don’t think anybody gets it right on the first try. Certainly not me.”
New Stage’s support, a dramaturg’s services and, he says with an eye-twinkling tease, “a very profound and opinionated group of actresses around the table” will all help his homework on the play.
The ensemble cast includes, from Jackson and surrounding communities, Ali Dinkins, Jessica Wilkinson, Jo Ann Robinson, Joy Amerson, Annie Cleveland, Kerri Sanders and Hope Prybylski, and, from Atlanta – Bryn Striepe and Carolyn Choe.
A Southern voice
Payne moved from Jackson to Atlanta in 1999, finding a just-right spot big enough to pursue his career but not as huge as Los Angeles and New York, he says. “There is a decided Southern sensibility to my own approach to life and Atlanta complements that really well.”
The prolific writer has penned more than 20 plays, which have been produced around the world. Other works include “Swell Party,” “Perfect Arrangement” and “Tokens of Affection.” His TV movie writing credits include “A Gift to Remember,” “Broadcasting Christmas” and “My Summer Prince.”
He names as career highs those milestone moments where achievement and close ties come together. Opening night Off-Broadway of “Perfect Arrangement,” for instance, with 15 family members in attendance. The premiere of his first Hallmark movie. “I missed the L.A. premiere but the Bolton premiere was amazing!
“Those are the tremendous moments.” Awards have come his way, including the 2014 Osborn Award by the American Theatre Critics Association. But, celebrating success, surrounded by loved ones, is the real reward.
“My parents were given the blessing and the challenge of a kid who was going to follow a different path than they did. And they spent a lot of time and devoted a lot of heartache and resources to helping me find my way.” When something feels like the payoff of that investment, it’s special.
“Morningside” at New Stage Theatre is just such a moment. “I finally brought a show home.”
For show times and tickets to “Morningside,” visit newstagetheatre.com or the theater box office at 1100 Carlisle St. in Jackson, or call 601-948-3531.