First of two interviews about The Whipping Man with playwright Matthew Lopez. We also take a second look behind the scenes of this play at Barrington Stage Company in a second and exclusive interview with director Christopher Innvar.
Why is this play different from all the others?
“Because it is about a Jewish Confederate soldier and former slave owner who comes home to find his slaves about to have a Passover Seder.”
It’s an unusual and unexpected topic to write a play about, all the more so since Lopez, who is still in his twenties, is a totally modern American male, of Puerto Rican descent, and gay. To meet him you would think he was the life of the party – and he is – yet under the sparkling personality lies a probing and brilliant mind that will not rest. His talent deserves respect, as does his ceaseless curiosity about things.
So how, Lopez wondered, could someone whose ancestors endured centuries of slavery not find the practice immoral?
“What I originally sought to do was to write about how life returns to normal after a calamity.”
But the moments he is referring to are bigger than a Hurricane Katrina or the earthquake in Haiti.
“I’ve always been fascinated by those moments that the history books skip over: the valleys between the peaks of historical events.
“I was drawn to the Civil War because it provided two calamities in one event: war and slavery. How do you go from being a slave all your life to being free? What are the psychological mechanics of that? I wanted to write about slaves who have just recently been set free.
“But how does that shift work? For Caleb, the white character in the play, the question was: what do you do after four years of war and your home is destroyed? How do you rebuild not just your infrastructure, but your way of life, particularly when it was your very way of life that started the war in the first place?”
But what about the Jewishness of the characters?
“In my research, I discovered that Passover began the day after Lee surrendered at Appomattox. It gave me goosebumps to realize that the ancient tradition of commemorating the Exodus from Egypt was occurring at the same time a new American exodus was happening.”
This whet your appetite?
“I figured: if I can’t turn this into a compelling piece of theatre, I have no business being a writer. I knew instantly I wanted a scene in the play where a recently freed slave performs a Seder. The only believable way for that to happen would be for the slave to be Jewish. And, given that most African Americans are Christian because most slave-owners were Christian, that meant his owner would likely have to be Jewish, as well.
So that means Jews actually own slaves back then?
“Surprisingly to me and to most people, the answer was “yes.” They made up a much smaller population of slave-owners than their Christian neighbors but American Jews in the south were not immune to the pull of slavery.
“It illustrated for me how pernicious and unavoidable slavery was: that Jews, with their own history of enslavement could own slaves themselves. It seemed to me the most regrettable of hypocrisies and one that might resonate with a modern audience, both Jewish and non-Jewish. We are all the result of the mistakes and the hypocrisies of our American forebears.”
But isn’t hypocrisy combined with moral superiority a great American tradition?
“We live in an age where anti-gay Christian leaders go on European vacations with male prostitutes. It seemed to me that the subject of religious hypocrisy was not something new and perhaps by exploring it in our past, we can better understand it in our present.”
All this is certainly a tantalizing taste of what is to come when The Whipping Man opens here late in May, while its sister production is currently in previews at San Diego’s Old Globe theatre.
Reports from Balboa Park relate that some theatre-goers have left in panic after seeing the amputation scene and there is discussion of having an EMT on hand to administer first aid to the easily shocked and overly sensitive.
The bi-coastal production was undertaken just as Lopez was announced as the Playwright in Residence at the Old Globe, which will be his home base.
As Playwright in Residence does that mean you can support yourself in theatre as a young playwright?
“I wish it meant that! Sadly, I think the only thing that could truly support a life in the theatre for a young playwright is a career in television. But I’m trying!
“What it really means is that, for the next two years, I have an artistic home to play in, to take chances in, to further develop my skills in. On a purely psychological level, it’s nice to be liked. It makes sitting in front of the computer each day that much easier.
“I am at an exciting time in my career where the work I’ve done all these years is finally starting to be recognized and I am starting to be taken seriously as a writer. That feels good. If it doesn’t exactly keep me in groceries, at least it keeps me in good spirits.”
Meantime, it is not too early to plan to see the play that Matthew has spent years perfecting. It started as a short twenty minute piece and has grown into what promises to be a full evening of great theatre.
The East Coast production at Barrington Stage Company will feature Clarke Peters (HBO’s Treme and The Wire), LeRoy McClain and Nick Westrate. Christopher Innvar directs the Barrington Stage production at Stage 2 ( 36 Linden Street , Pittsfield ). Performances of The Whipping Man are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30pm, Wednesdays at 2pm, Saturdays at 4pm and 8pm, and Sunday at 7:3pm at BSC Stage 2, 36 Linden St., Pittsfield. Opening Night: Sat., May 29 at 8pm. Tickets: $15-$45. Seniors: $20 all matinees. Pay What You Can Night for 35 year olds and younger: Fri., June 4 at 7:30pm. For ticket information call 413-236-8888, stop by the BSC Box Office at 30 Union Street, or visit www.barringtonstageco.org.
Who’s Who in The Whipping Man
Matthew Lopez, an exciting new playwright, presented Tio Pepe at The Public Theater’s 2008 Summer Play Festival. His other plays include Zoey’s Perfect Wedding and Reverberation. The Whipping Man premiered at Luna Stage in Montclair , NJ and has received productions at Penumbra Theatre Company in St. Paul , Caldwell Theatre in Boca Raton , FL and will open at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego , CA in May.
Clarke Peters (Simon) currently stars in HBO’s Treme (Albert Lambreaux) and The Wire (Detective Lester Freamon). He’s a Tony nominee for Best Book of a Musical for the revue Five Guys Named Moe. His New York performance credits include Broadway’s The Iceman Cometh (Theater World Award) and Billy Flynn in Chicago . Regional credits: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Wiz, Bubblin’ Brown Sugar, The Amen Corner, Carmen Jones and Driving Miss Daisy. In London he starred in Trevor Nunn’s production of Porgy and Bess, The Witches of Eastwick and Chicago.
LeRoy McClain (John) Broadway: Cymbeline, The History Boys. Off-Broadway: Measure for Measure, Othello, The Good Negro, Oroonoko, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Huck & Holden, In Search of Stanley Hammer. International: Othello. Regional: The Good Negro, Othello, Blue/Orange, Rough Crossing, Trouble in Mind, Elmina’s Kitchen, The Comedy of Errors, Richard II, The Taming of the Shrew, Three Days of Rain, Private Eyes and others. Film: The Adjustment Bureau, After, The Stage, Breaking In. Television: “Rubicon,” “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” “Guiding Light.” Training: M.F.A. Yale School of Drama, National Theatre Acting Studio ( London ).
Nick Westrate (Caleb) was last seen as Donald in The Transport Group’s The Boys in the Band. Broadway: A Moon for the Misbegotten (dir. Howard Davies). Off-Broadway: The Boys in the Band (Transport Group), MacB***h, Edmund White’s Terre Haute (with Peter Eyre), PeopleSpeak (59E59), NY Premier of Durang’s The Vietnamization of New Jersey, All That I Will Ever Be (NYTW). Regional: Tartuffe (McCarter/Yale Rep. dir, Daniel Fish), The Merchant of Venice (CalShakes, dir, Daniel Fish), The Amazons and their Men, Little Black Dress (NYS&F), Edward II (dir. Sam Gold), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (dir. Joe Dowling). Television: New Amsterdam (FOX). Training: Juilliard.
Christopher Innvar (Director) A company member since 2003, Innvar last directed Mark St. Germain’s The Collyer Brothers at Home and Period Piece at BSC. His performance credits include: A Streetcar Named Desire, Carousel, Private Lives, Ring ‘Round the Moon, The Importance of Being Earnest, Cyrano de Bergerac and The Game. He just finished the sold-out run of The Boys in the Band for The Transport Group under the direction of Jack Cummings III. NY credits also include Adam Guettel’s Floyd Collins and William Finn’s A New Brain, Roundabout’s 110 in the Shade and Threepenny Opera, Victor/Victoria and Les Misèrables.
The creative team includes Sandra Goldmark (scenic design), Kristina Lucka (costume design), Scott Pinkney (lighting design), Brad Berridge (sound design) and Kate Cudworth (stage manager).