In a single sentence during a WABE-FM “City Lights” interview with Myke Johns last week, “Angry Fags” playwright Topher Payne aptly explains the appeal of the play’s ascending political figure Peggy Musgrove: “Imagine if the Georgia GOP had a Stacey Abrams.”
The description even gives Parris Sarter, the Atlanta actress who brings Peggy Musgrove to life each evening on stage at 7 Stages pause. “Wow,” Sarter says. “But he’s right. The GOP would be unstoppable. It would be over, slam dunk.” The 2019 edition of “Angry Fags” continues its run at 7 Stages Theatre in Little Five Points through Sunday.
In Payne’s revised “post-Trump” version of the dark comedy that had its world premiere in 2013 at 7 Stages, he transforms the rising star of the Georgia GOP into a black woman and a character who will linger with you long after the curtain drops.
In a show filled with likable, nuanced and funny (not to mention deadly) characters, this is no mean feat. Indeed, Sarter is a member of an acting ensemble consisting of Cody Russell, Gregory Hernandez, Brandon Partrick, Kelly Criss, Gina Rickicki and Carolyn Cook that could be the hardest working group of actors working together on a stage this season. Simultaneously hilarious, heart stopping and haunting, “Angry Fags” serves as a riveting invitation to leave our respective entrenched TrumpWorld fox holes and engage in dialogue with one another.
And Parris Sarter’s Peggy Musgrove is perhaps the play’s most thought-provoking conduit for that conversation. It’s one reason Sarter has coveted the role ever since she first heard about the play backstage at OnStage Atlanta in 2014 while working on Payne’s “Lake Bottom Prime.”
“I stalked this play, I’m not kidding you!” Sarter concedes with laugh. “I knew this woman. She goes to my church. She’s in my family. I even drove home to South Carolina to remind myself why I left South Carolina. I just remember thinking, ‘Oh my god, I’ve got to do this play.”
Or as incumbent Georgia State Senator Allison Haines (Gina Rickicki) succinctly sums up her opponent early in Act One: “I’m a white lesbian up against a black female Republican. It’s like they found a goddamn unicorn.”
When Payne re-wrote the cautionary dark comedy of two gay friends who go from lobbing witty one liners to lobbing WMDs after the gay bashing of an ex-lover to reflect the aftermath of the election of the 45th President of the United States, he realized his initial iteration of the Musgrove character was the correct one.
“I had decided on the race of the character back when I wrote the first draft in 2012,” recalls Payne. “But upon further reflection, I felt that trying to include conversations about race into an already very stuffed show might be to its detriment. But I reconsidered that in the rewrite because I no longer believe any of these topics can exist in isolation. We are all in this together. Concerns about gender, concerns about race, concerns about sexual orientation all exist in the same sphere and I wanted the 2019 version of the script to respect that fact.”
Sarter says she was hooked as soon as she read the Peggy Musgrove character description: “Genuine, witty, nimble. A black female Republican with all of the conflicts and potential advantages that implies. She’s found a way to weaponize being othered.”
Reflects the actress: “I said, ‘Finally, someone is writing a role that a lot of black women don’t get to play. Finally, we’re not seeing stereotypes. She’s going against the stereotype and she’s going to win at this. It’s like Stacey Abrams. She understands that if she does the normal, that’s what people expect. But if she turns the corner and turns left and then turns right, you don’t know what she’ll do next. She’s keeping people on their toes and showing them that she knows how to play the game, play it right and be successful at it. That’s what Peggy is doing as well. She’s coming in earnestly with good intentions but she’s a little naïve. She’s fighting the good fight but she has no idea she’s about to get caught up.”
As Peggy Musgrove’s political fortunes rise throughout Act One as a counterpoint to her political rival Sen. Allison Haines, an out lesbian married mother, she appears mostly in video news segments or through the lenses of Haines’ staffers. Sarter doesn’t physically step foot on stage until a full 45 minutes into the play.
“That’s by design,” says Payne. “Peggy Musgrove is an unstoppable charm machine and so is Parris Sarter. I wanted the audience to keep an emotional distance until we meet her in the ladies room. That’s when we realize, “‘Oh, she’s delightful!’”
Payne says he originally based the character on his mother and her sisters. “My people are in Mississippi and as such, they have more conservative voices than my unapologetic socially progressive voice. I have so much love, respect and affection for the women in my family who carry that mindset. That voice has been so consistent in my life, it felt like a natural evolution to have that influence in the story.”
For every progressive theatre-goer who bought a ticket to “Angry Fags” because of its purposely provocative title and who is initially convinced that Musgrove must be the play’s villainess, there’s a truth bomb hidden under the hand soap and set to detonate in Sarter’s first scene.
Bumping into Kimberly (Kelly Criss), a Senator Haines campaign staffer in the ladies room, the two tussle over Musgrove’s apparent support for an anti-trans bathroom bill. Until Sarter’s Musgrove schools Kimberly, saying: “My family taught me more than a little about what it feels like to be told which bathrooms you’re allowed to use, so rest assured, I would tread very carefully on this issue.”
Sarter says the line reflects the reality of the power a political figure could have if the real GOP attempted to widen its currently constricted party tent. “If the GOP had a legit Stacey Abrams, it would be amazing,” says Sarter. ‘But it’s not happening because the GOP keeps doing what it’s doing. Yes, there are many black conservatives out there but the GOP, as a party, keeps going against so much of what we believe morally to our core. Many people look at black Republicans and say, ‘What is wrong with you?’ It’s because the GOP doesn’t support you as a person. They don’t see you as a person. They’re just trying to get you over to win votes. You become a pawn, a part of the game. But if that all changed? A real-life Peggy Musgrove would be unstoppable. In a good way.”
The character is just the latest in an impressive roster of roles Parris Sarter has accumulated on her resume since graduating with an M.A. in Performing Arts from the Savannah College of Art and Design. In the 2017 Synchronicity Theatre staging of playwright/actress Danai Gurira’s “Eclipsed,” she made an indelible impression as Rita, one of the five Liberian women portrayed in the drama set near the end of the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003. Earlier this season, she was in the critically acclaimed Actor’s Express production of “Octoroon” and played the title role in last year’s ambitious Actor’s Express revival of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.”
“This is a great moment in Atlanta theater,” Sarter reflects. “I’m grateful I’m getting to tell stories that matter. I get to help express voices that normally don’t get expressed for black women, black people, gay people. I am very honored that people trust me with their words. I don’t take that lightly. For me, there’s no time to be cute on stage. I can’t be cheap with these words.”
When you’re portraying such powerful and memorable characters as Peggy Musgrove and Cooper Harlow (Cody Russell), it’s difficult to get upstaged but it does happen to both actors late in Act Two. By a strategically-placed fast food bag.
Says Sarter: “When I walk on stage with that Chick Fil A bag, it gets a reaction each night. People either groan or they laugh, but they have a response to it. And the timing couldn’t be better since Chick Fil A is back in the news [for making new charitable donations to anti-LGBTQ+ causes].” For Payne, the point of the prop is so necessary it’s literally written into the stage directions.
“When it was staged in Chicago [in 2015 at the Steppenwolf Garage], the prop designer literally made a Chick Fil A bag so no one would have to actually go to Chick Fil A to get a bag. I put the bag in that scene to serve as a reminder that we all have blind spots, even the most well-intentioned among us.”
Sarter says the cast of “Angry Fags” is too busy to reflect on the play’s impact during performances, but she occasionally feels it up there on stage. “You don’t know who you’re talking to. It’s like a ministry. You don’t know who you’re touching, who you’re inspiring. You don’t know who might be on the edge and who you might be talking off that edge.”
“’Angry Fags’ is a distinctly southern show,” assesses Payne. “It’s as southern as ‘Steel Magnolias.’ It’s very much of this place and of this time. Even those who are on the most radical left have Peggy Musgroves in their lives that they make room for. For me, that’s southern as grits. Maybe what we’re able to do within our own families is the light that will lead us out of our current circumstances.”
Topher Payne’s revised “Angry Fags,” co-directed by Kate Donadio MacQueen and Ibi Owolabi and starring Cody Russell, Gregory Hernandez, Brandon Partrick, Kelly Criss, Gina Rickicki, Parris Sarter and Carolyn Cook, runs through Sunday, April 14 at 7 Stages at 1105 Euclid Ave. in Little Five Points. For tickets: visit 7stages.org.
All “Angry Fag” cast photos by Stungun Photography
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.