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Howard County actor JC Payne works to diversify everything about live theater

Jurdan Payne, a graduate of Howard Community College's theater program, is working toward a career in stage acting during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jurdan Payne, a graduate of Howard Community College's theater program, is working toward a career in stage acting during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Columbia-based actor Jurdan Payne won’t back down, won’t look away, won’t say “yes” if his conscience says “no.”

In live theater, a profession where agreeableness is highly valued, the 28-year-old thespian (he goes by “JC”) has demonstrated a willingness to challenge power structures.

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So far, Payne’s outspokenness hasn’t prevented him from working steadily as a performer. Though still in school (he’s a senior at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County) he’s been cast in productions by the Chesapeake Shakespeare Co., Strand Theatre, Fells Point Corner Theatre and the Annapolis Shakespeare Co.

Chelsea Pace, an assistant professor in UMBC’s theater department, has been struck by her student’s fearlessness — on stage and off.

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JC Payne plays the Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, opposite Alex Palting. The production was put on by Chesapeake Shakespeare Company 2018. Photo by Jean Thompson
JC Payne plays the Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, opposite Alex Palting. The production was put on by Chesapeake Shakespeare Company 2018. Photo by Jean Thompson (Jean Thompson)

“Actors internalize the message that they always have to say ‘yes,’ ” she said. “They’re taught that if they push back and offer resistance, they’ll be labeled ‘hard to work with’ and will stop getting cast in shows. I call it ‘The Easy to Get Along With Myth.’

“JC won’t say ‘yes’ if he sees bad behavior in the rehearsal room, and that’s a brave thing to do.”

For instance, Pace said that Payne has advocated for staging rarely-performed works by Black playwrights — and not just in February, during Black History Month.

“He advocates to the faculty about works we’re producing to make sure student voices are heard,” she said. “He’s done that fearlessly which is something that I really admire.”

In June, Payne posted a “Dear White People” essay on his Facebook page in which he recounted racist experiences in the theater, including a request from a director to “do a black voice.”

He wrote: “For way way, way too long, many theater companies have willingly participated in the commodification of black trauma as a way to make white audiences feel better about themselves or just to make money. ... I promise, black joy is just as viable.”

Payne has been acting in community and semi-professional theaters for nearly a decade. He estimates he’s been cast in between 40 and 50 shows and seldom goes more than a month or two without working — statistics many of his peers would envy.

Perhaps that’s because Payne’s activism is combined with a strong worth ethic, an optimistic outlook and a sense of humor. Under the special skills section of his resume, he lists “plays the ukelele” and “burps on demand.”

His “can-do” attitude (”I think it comes from not wanting to be fired,” he said) and his celebration of black joy are all the more remarkable given the challenges Payne has overcome.

At age 18, as Payne was preparing to leave his home in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to begin his freshman year at New York’s Wagner College, his mother died by suicide.

“We had gone shopping for school supplies just the week before,” he said. “She had a history of depression. I don’t think I fully processed her death at the time.”

Payne forged ahead with his studies. But he dropped out after his sophomore year, returning home in 2012 to spend time with his father, who was terminally ill with cancer.

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“My dad and I became close after my mom passed away,” he said.

Payne relocated to Columbia in 2016 to live with his sister and fulfill a request from his dad, who had died earlier that year. He earned an associate’s degree from Howard Community College in 2018, then transferred to UMBC.

“My father really wanted me to finish school,” he said. “It was one of his last wishes.”

As is often the case, Payne’s father really did know best. The actor has decided to continue his education and eventually make teaching his career.

Graduate school is next on his horizon and then, ideally, a tenure-track position in a university theater department where he can combine teaching with performing.

Though many students of color enroll in theater programs, Payne said the faculty and administrators tend to be overwhelmingly white. He and Pace hope that will change.

“Right now, theaters are talking about how to diversify their seasons and offerings, but they’re not talking about diversifying their structures,” Pace said.

“We need people like JC to work with the next generation of students. He has something to add to the national conversation.”

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