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'Whipping Man' Playwright Ventures From What He Knows

TheaterMusical TheaterBroadway TheaterReligious Conflicts

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.

Prince invited Lopez to his memorabilia-filled office in Rockefeller Plaza.

"I was 'temp'-ing at the time and very poor and I spent my last dollars on a suit from Banana Republic because I wanted to look good for Hal Prince.

Lopez had already begun writing and he asked Prince if he should go to grad school to study the craft. "He said the best way to do anything in this business is to just do it."

At the end of the talk, Prince put Lopez in contact with Terrence McNally whose next project, the musical "A Man of No Importance," was being workshopped at Lincoln Center. McNally took Lopez on as an assistant in the new project that was directed by Joe Mantello.

In return for the help — "which he really didn't need" — McNally agreed to read Lopez' work. "I gave him something that was dreadful, but he was encouraging and pointed out where there were strengths and weaknesses. He recognized things that even I didn't see at the time.

"What Hal Prince and Terrence McNally did was not so little. These were two men who didn't have to give me the time of day. That was a benchmark that I hope always to live in my professional life. How something like that can literally change a person's life.

"I felt very vulnerable finally showing someone who wasn't related to me some of my writing. Writing was something I always did for myself but I wasn't sure to what end. Writing was something that other people did, special people, anointed people. I just didn't feel I had permission. But all I needed at that time was encouragement."

'Whipping' Into Shape

Lopez then starting writing in earnest in his free time away from an office job at HBO in Manhattan that that supported him. A dramaturge at the Luna Stage in Montclair, N.J. in 2004 encouraged him to expand his short "The Soldier and the Slave" work into a full-length play. In 2006 the theater premiered the play. It was followed by a production at Penumbra Theatre Company in St, Paul, Minn., whose works have African-American themes.

But then the momentum for the play slowed until the Old Globe in San Diego produced it in 2010 followed by Barrington Stage in Pittsfield, Mass. The play made it to off-Broadway last spring in a production that starring Andre Braugher and staged by Doug Hughes, former artistic director of New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre.

Lopez' most recent work includes"Somewhere,"which had is premiere last year at the Old Globe Playhouse and starred his aunt. That play, set in the early '60s, centers on a Puerto Rican family, several of them actors, whose West Side home is threatened to be bulldozed for the building of Lincoln Center. The area is also the setting for the film version of "West Side Story." He says he is developing that story.

Lopez is also working on two plays "that couldn't be more different" for commissions he has from the Old Globe and the Roundabout Theatre Company. One is a light piece about the switching of gender identity which he calls "a lark." The other is a serious look on American themes "and will be a large play."

He is also in the early stages of working on a musical for a commercial producer based on the documentary "Mad Hot Ballroom," about teaching ballroom dancing in the New York City schools. Director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell is also attached to the project.

Though his personal story isn't evident in any of these works, he says he is still "surprised how much I find myself in my plays. If I can maintain that feeling I don't need to ever write about my life in Park Slope in Brooklyn and as a gay man living in New York City."

But he's not ruling anything out.

"If I come up with a great idea, I totally will."

THE WHIPPING MAN runs through March 18 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. ; and matinee performances are Sundays and selected Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. Information: 860-527-5151 and http://www.hartfordstage.org.

Read Frank's blog on theater, the arts and entertainment at http://www.courant.com/curtain and catch him talking about what's on stage in Connecticut on FOX/CT's 'Morning Show" on Fridays during the 9 a.m. hour. And be the first to know by following Frank on Twitter at http://www.Twitter.com/ShowRiz.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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