"The Whipping Man"

Che Ayende and Josh Landay in "The Whipping Man" at Hartford Stage. (T. Charles Erickson, Hartford Stage / March 1, 2012)

If Matthew Lopez were teaching a class on writing he might take a turn on the maxim and say: "Write what you don't know."

Lopez is the son of a Puerto Rican father and a Polish-Russian mother. He grew up Episcopalian and gay in Panama City, Fla.

But his play "The Whipping Man" is in another world, not to mention another century.

Lopez set his work on Passover in the days following the end of the Civil War, centering on an encounter with two former slaves' and their Virginia plantation owner who raised them in his Jewish faith and is now returning as a badly wounded and bitterly defeated and disillusioned Confederate soldier.

The three-actor play — which received strong reviews in its run last year at off-Broadway's Manhattan Theatre Club — is having several productions this season at regional theaters, including Hartford Stage where it is now running through March 18.

Reaction of audiences to the boyish-looking, slightly-built Lopez in after show talk-backs, says the playwright, are on the order of, "Why is the intern leading the discussion?"

"The assumption is the [person who wrote the play] is black, Jewish or 65 — or all of those things," says Lopez during a recent interview in a coffee shop near Union Square in Manhattan.

Lopez, 35, says he wrote his share of semi-autobiographical works when he started out. "Oh, I have a drawer-full of plays about breakups, lonely gay boys and love affairs," says Lopez. "There's a lot of me in my early plays but no one wants to see my life depicted on stage. I'm bored by my life. But one of the gifts of being able to create things for a living, you do get to create worlds that don't exist. It's more exciting to create a world that no one has been to before. I'm a writer and this is the world I imagined."

For "The Whipping Man," he first had to know the historic world that his imagination could live in. He plowed through a mountain of reference books that only now is he is finally clearing out from his Brooklyn home. He also consulted a rabbi in how to perform a Seder, the Jewish observance of the Exodus story of freedom.

"If you're going to wrestle with the bear you better get it right: The Jewish bear, the Civil War bear, the slavery bear. I knew if I didn't get it right — not the human nature of the play but rather the history stuff — I'd get nailed if I was one millimeter off."

He says the details surrounding the story are true (there were about 50,000 Jews in the South at that time, some of them slave owners), but the characters and action are all part of Lopez' imagination. Still, the themes of new identity, being an outsider and discrimination are ones in which many — including Lopez — can connect.

"Instead of, 'Write what you know,' maybe it's, 'Write what you know about the world.' "

Aunt Priscilla

Lopez, the son of two teachers, says he was hooked on theater as a kid, inspired by his aunt, Tony Award-winner Priscilla Lopez ("A Chorus Line" in which she sang the anthemic "What I Did For Love," and "In the Heights").

"When I told her I wanted to be an actor she said, 'Be a writer instead.' She knows how hard the life of an actor is and she told me that when you're a writer you own your work. I often say that if she if she was a dentist I would want to clean teeth."

But Lopez was not the stereotypical theater geek kid. Though he says he was 'definitely artsy-fartsy from the get-go, baby," he felt the drama club productions at Mosley High School "were not up to my standard" so instead he became co-editor of the school newspaper.

He followed the acting call when he went to the University of South Florida in Tampa, graduating with a degree in theater performance. After college, Lopez went to New York in 2000 to pursue acting but in his heart he was also unsure of his ultimate destination in theater.

Arriving in New York he sent a letter to figures whose names and addresses he found in the Theatrical Index, an industry listing periodical. "The letter said: 'I am Matthew Lopez and I want to work in the theater. I don't know at what capacity but if you have a job that needs doing, I will do it."

He sent out 100 letters. And the response?

One — from Harold Prince — the most award-winning producer and director in Broadway history.