Playwright Johnny Drago has joined forces with playwright and director Topher Payne for Process Theatre’s latest production—a world premier called Trash. WABE’s Myke Johns spoke with Drago and Payne and found that there is more to Trash than just rubbish.
The title of Process Theatre’s production is both literal and figurative. Playwright Johnny Drago’s premise is “essentially that a D-list movie star has been hanging out in her mother’s trailer, sort of waiting for the better part of two decades for her chance at a comeback.“
So “trash” as in trashy or low-brow.
Drago has been referring to it as “Glass Menagerie meets Anna Nicole [Smith], meets Hoarders…on diet pills.”
So “trash” as in garbage as well. And the set is covered in it. Trash bags and broken shoes and clothes and snack cake boxes piled to the ceiling.
Director Topher Payne chuckles over the number of Honey Buns he’s bought in order to dress the set.
“And then I just have all these Honey Buns,” Topher says, “so everybody in the cast is gaining weight.”
The story nestled into all this filth centers around Jinx Malibu—a mid-1990s movie star… although “movie star” might be overstating it. Jinx is more the Late-Late Show-on-Cinemax type. And then she did infomercials for diet pills. And then she kind of faded away.
“And then when a mysterious stranger arrives,” Drago says, “claiming to be from Hollywood, she sees it as her last chance at some big resurrection.”
The results are big and broad and obnoxious…at first. Topher Payne, though, is aiming beyond exploitation here.
“When people see the title and certainly when they hear the synopsis of the plot,” he says, “I think there is this idea of we’re going for some kind of a Jerry Springer angle. But really what is trash but something that once had use and has been tossed aside?”
Process Theater’s Artistic Director DeWayne Morgan is in the lead role as Jinx Malibu. DeWayne is playing the role in drag. Morgan is accustomed to donning pumps and a wig for audiences—he’s well-known in Atlanta theater for playing the part of Suzanne Sugarbaker in Process’ annual production of Designing Women Live. Johnny Drago wrote the part of Jinx with him specifically in mind and says that he cast the main role in drag for a number of reasons.
“A sense of alienation, a sense of the unreal…” Drago says, “so that the audience is looking at the performer both as the character and as the performer at the same time, it’s a little bit of a distancing technique.”
He says apart from having a bit of fun writing a role for Morgan, it adds another layer for the audience to filter the story through. Which Drago hopes will lend itself to the duality of the character—the idea of a celebrity as one person and then the real person they actually are.
Backing up for a second, there is something we kind of breezed right by. Earlier, Drago referred to the show as Glass Menagerie meets Anna Nicole Smith.
“Tennessee Williams is a huge influence on my writing,” Drago says. “I’m looking at—in particular—Glass Menagerie and the hopelessness of someone who hangs all of their dreams on one person coming into their house and changing everything.”
And if a revered Southern writer like Tennessee Williams seems a little high-minded a reference for a show about a pill-popping hoarder with a long list of soft-core pornographic movies to her name, director Topher Payne points out what he sees as a misperception of the types of characters populating the work of writers like Williams or Eudora Welty or William Faulkner.
Payne says that the image that comes to mind when most people think of that work is “this mint julep-sippin’ Southern gentry. Those aren’t the people that they actually wrote about,” Payne insists. “Southern writers were much more interested in people who were lower-middle class at best. Stanley and Stella in Streetcar Named Desire were white trash by any contemporary standards we would use. The Wingfield family in Glass Menagerie is living in dire straits.”
“They’re either trying to climb their way somewhere,” Drago adds, “or trying to climb back up or they’re haunted. So Jinx Malibu on some level in the play is a joke, but one of the things that I’m trying to get at is this idea that we look at our celebrities one way and we treat them some way and we expect them to be not fully human.”
And with that thesis, Johnny Drago and Topher Payne have given themselves license to both revel in and rise above…well, you know.
Process Theatre’s production of Trash is running now at OnStage Atlanta through September 28. For more, visit Atlanta PlanIt.