How to be free
by Richard Dodds
The time, the place, and the characters of The Whipping Man are so far removed from playwright Matthew Lopez's actual experiences that it wasn't until he was on a therapist's couch that he found the underlying connections. In his plays, he discovered, he writes about characters who are out of place in their respective worlds.
"It was a long time before I could see that was where I automatically went as a storyteller," Lopez said. "I cannot help but see that as a direct result of growing up identifiably gay but not yet identifying as gay. There's a big difference between claiming your identity and having it thrust on you."
In The Whipping Man, opening April 2 at Marin Theatre Company, its three characters have become ultimate outsiders in the days following the Confederate surrender ending the Civil War. Having gone into hiding together, the trio is made up of a former plantation owner and two of his emancipated slaves who are coping with sudden freedom. Their legal bonds have been severed but they share a common faith. They are all Jews, as the slaves had been raised in the master's religion, as was the tradition. Though a distinct minority, there were indeed Jewish slaveholders in the Confederate South.
As for Lopez, 35, he was raised in a casually Episcopalian household on the Florida panhandle with Civil War buffs as parents. Lopez had come to New York in 2000 to be an actor, but wanted to move into playwriting as the inkling of what became The Whipping Man developed. During his research, he learned that the Passover observance began the day after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. So his characters became a Jew bemoaning the loss of his slaves just as he was preparing to celebrate the liberation of Israelites from slavery in Egypt.
In the six years since The Whipping Man was first produced, it has become one of the most popular contemporary plays for production in regional theaters. Lopez has written four more plays, including Somewhere, which was staged earlier this year by TheatreWorks in Mountain View. Pulled from his relatives' stories, it focused on a Puerto Rican family hoping to be cast in the movie of West Side Story just as they are being evicted from their West Side home to make way for Lincoln Center. His next premiere will be at the Denver Theatre Center in 2014 with The Legend of Georgia McBride, the story of a straight Elvis impersonator who must learn to adapt when the bar owner hires a drag act to replace him.
While he says he has written about gay characters in "a very glancing sort of way," the play he is currently writing under commission from Hartford Stage charges head-on into gay life. Tentatively titled The Inheritance, it focuses on three generations of gay men whose ages define their feelings about the emergence of the AIDS crisis and its evolution as a defining part of gay life. "It's kind of a loose adaptation of Howards End, and instead of three families from three different social classes, it's three generations of gay men, each of whom has a very different idea of sex and relationships."
As busy as Lopez is as a playwright, he augments his income as a staff writer on Aaron Sorkin's HBO series The Newsroom. "Staff writer" is a bit of a misnomer when working with Sorkin. "Aaron writes every single script," he said, "so we are there to be of service to Aaron's writing process. We are a little idea machine."
Lopez embraces his success with a hefty dose of caution. "It's a great blessing to be able to work as a writer, but the day I start looking at it as my birthright is the day I'm going to set myself up for a great disappointment. That was a shocking realization to me, that you can have wonderful success in your career and it's not going to save you."
The Whipping Man will run at Marin Theatre Company through April 21. Tickets are $36-$52. Call 388-5208 or go to www.marintheatre.org.