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Jonathan Payne

Playwrights’ Corner
Headshot of Jonathan Payne
The church and the black community… it’s a relationship that’s constantly evolving as we move forward as a people. How did you decide where to start the conversation in your play Brother Rabbit?

The play started with mental health. I'm a social worker as my day job and a son of quite the devoted Christian. As a child I grew up with questions and just all around teenage strife, and my mother's advice was always to pray. Pray and be patient. To remember Job or Daniel with the Lions. I was told to toughen up, not to cry, to be strong, no matter what. And I've realized this is something my mother had to figure growing up with both parents dead by the age of nine. She had to toughen and trust in the Lord raising two children as a single parent. This not unusual to us as a people.

We are products of a history of horror, of degradation and abuse. Trauma is the root that's been watered for so long. And are we dealing with that trauma appropriately? And trauma is present tense as well. We've got trauma on top of trauma. But it's a weakness to reveal weakness. To cry. To say I have bipolar disorder. You just need to toughen up. You need Jesus. You need to be whipped into behaving. None of this deals with the root. It waters it. Lets it fester and grow.

The other belief in the Bible is faith without work is dead. And to me that means therapy. That means asking for help. That means telling a young man to let it out. And to get specific. Real specific, because we're dealing with individuals. And we're better about things in terms of mental health nowadays, but the church needs to address these things, and not place them on a supernatural plane, but as something God or Jesus intended us to work on. I shouldn't be preaching, but the play came out of the relationship between religion and mental health. 

Which of your characters spoke to you first? And how has that character changed since you started working on the play? 

Ramus came to me first. I was excited by the play Harvey and thought it would be cool to see that play from a black perspective. I had come across this idea of pastor fatigue and began to create a character marrying these two ideas. He's a pastor to a small congregation, but he's worn by their struggles, to the detriment of his relationship with his family. Things come to a head when his son kills himself unexpectedly, with no warning or reason thereof, and, soon after, his wife leaves him. He falls apart and eventually suffers from a delusion that sends him down an unusual path which makes no sense to anyone but himself. It's noble but nonsensical.

It's only until much later in the process that I realized his actions are deeply rooted in resurrecting his son. He finds and builds a new belief that operates under his own personal understanding with the hope of some form of miracle happening. But does it happen?

Where are you in the development process of this play and what are you goals going into this week?

The play used to have a lot of bells and whistles. A Greek chorus. Six characters. Psuedo-greek tragic structure. It had a lot. On this go around I tried to dial all the stuff back, which may or may not work. I've halved the cast and am starting to realize it may be more about agnosticism than mental health. It's a bit of a mess and a challenge, so my focus is hearing it on talented actors mouths, and working with an up-and-coming and exciting director in Candis Jones. Thanks to The New Black Fest I get to take a risk and learn more about a play I lost a little faith in. I'm grateful for the opportunity.

What does "Black Space, Black Love and Solidarity" mean to you personally and in what ways does your work live or move about in these spaces? 

Growing up I spent a lot of time isolated. I attended an elementary school that was mostly Hispanic and Asian, where I was made fun of for my skin color. And then I moved on to Junior High where there were more people who looked like me and I was made fun of again for not being "black enough." This was a tough pill to swallow, but I found myself on a perch those formative years, looking in, and wondering if I'm black, but not black, then what am I?

I'd later understand that black folk are not a monolith. That things are not so binary. It's okay that I grew up listening to grunge and metal, and couldn't really name a song by Jodeci or Xscape. Or that I loved sci-fi and comic books. And there were plenty of black folk who did and would. There are black folk who love the president! And I hope that my work can honor our diversity of experiences, and present a people of depth and complication. All that I see perched on my tree.

What SOLIDARITY, BLACK LOVE and SPACE mean to me is that square in the village where people gather and share their experiences by whatever medium, but we listen and dialogue, and share. And celebrate our journey together. I feel it's a great thing Mr. Adkins created and it's an honor to be invited down from my perch to be a part of it all.


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