- About the Play
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- Study Guide
For additional information, consider attending the free engagement events around this production. Download schedule.
What is the job of a technical director?
The technical director oversees the scenic construction of a show as well as other aspects of the production. He takes the scenic designers vision and makes it come to life. He'll take the designers drawings and make construction drawings from which he and his crew will build the set from. He chooses the materials that will be needed to build the show and does budgeting for those materials in the build as well as hiring crews to construct and install the set.
He also deals with safety issues with all of the materials he and his crew use as well as safety in the scene shop and the theatre.
How do you construct a set that is brand new, and then make it look old and destroyed?
Here what we do is build it like a normal set and then break stuff up...its actually a bit more detailed and complicated that way. There are several ways to 'distress' the set.
As far as the scenic aspects - there are different things we do. For example there's a handrailing in the show for the stairs leading to an upper level. Some of the railing is missing on the stairs and a lot of the ballustrades are broken or busted up. The designer shows us this in a design elevation and then we'll break it up as close to as he's shown in his drawing.
Another example would be the floor. We actually make platforms with openings cut into them to again give a broken up/bombed out look. In this set we've cut away some of the top layers of plywood and have put large framing beams underneath that are exposed to give the look of how this 'home' was constructed.
And yet another example would be the walls. We'll cut away a portion of the facing material to give it a broken look. In the opening now created in the facing we'll add vertical framing and attach lathe (wood strips) across them to make them look like an older process of how walls were made long ago. Sort like peeling the layers back on something.
What details are the hardest to build with this set?
The ones I just mentioned - you need to take more time to give the detailed hidden look of something where you're seeing through the layers as opposed to a normal stock flat or new constructed flat or the deck which is all sealed up with facing.
What are you most excited about with this production?
I'd say working on on the blown up bits and making it rain onstage, The other thing is when the show is finished and comes to fruition onstage there's a lot of satisfaction for those of us behind the scenes who put it together.
View the video of the set's construction using the "Video" tab above.
from the Northlight Theatre Study Guide
Many Jewish families found a home in the South because Jews accepted Southern customs, and more importantly, Southerners accepted Jews. Generations of Jewish families settled in the South's largest and most thriving cities such as Atlanta, Charlotte, and Richmond. By 1800, the largest Jewish community in America lived in Charleston, where America's oldest synagogue - K.K. Beth Elohim - was founded.
Concerning their stand on slavery, Jews were already ostracized by many in American Society, especially the Antebellum North, and the draws of financial and social successes in the South led them to adapt to the Southern ways of life, which centered around slavery. As inhumane and unreasonable the practice of slavery was, it was regarded as a required, common practice. There were Jewish slave owners, traders and insurers just as there were non-Jewish slave owners, traders, and insurers. There were certainly Jews who did not agree with the system of slavery, but with an economy and a society built on the backs of slaves, standing up against the practice would lead to financial ruin and figurative or literal exile.
Even during the Civil War, the Union was not accepting of Jewish Soldiers. The over 10,000 Jewish men that fought for the Confederacy and General Robert E. Lee were allowed to observe all holy das. In the Union Army, enerals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman issued anti-Jewish orders. By fighting in the Civil War, many Jewish Confederate soldiers hoped they were positioning themselves as equals with other Confederate comrades. The Hebrew Cemetery in Richmond, VA has an assigned plot known as the "Soldiers' Section". It contins the graves of 30 Jewish Confederate soldiers who died in or near Richmond. It is the only Jewish military cemetery outside of the State of Israel.
by William Glick, Dramaturgy Intern
In The Whipping Man Simon says to John of his new freedom, "You living in this world now, not just servin' in it!" This radical shift in identity and placement within the American community is what freed slaves faced in the spring of 1865. Not all slaves greeted freedom the same way. Some were skeptical and still felt intense loyalty to the Confederacy, with some even being allowed to serve in its army during the final days of the war. However, for the most part, the news was greeted with jubilation. When Richmond fell, former slaves marched in the street singing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and calling it the Day of Jubilo. They also lined up to greet President Lincoln on his visit to Richmond:
Very few slaves knew how to read and write, so not many accounts of emancipation and its aftermath survive. However, there are some slaves that did write to their former masters in the late 1860s, explaining the circumstances of their new lives. Some expressed the friendship they still felt for their masters while others assumed a more business-like tone, insisting on wages and fair treatment if they were to come back to work for their former owners:
Sir: I got your letter and was glad to find you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anyone else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this for harboring Rebs they foun
The New York Times
By: Felicia R. Lee
Published: January 27, 2011
MATTHEW LOPEZ is ready for the question but continues to refine the answer. How did he, a self-described "foxhole Episcopalian" from the Florida Panhandle, the son of a Puerto Rican father and a Polish-Russian mother, come to write a play about a Jewish Confederate soldier and two former slaves raised as Jews who, in the charred wreck of a Virginia home after the Civil War, celebrate Passover together?
His parents, both teachers, and his younger brother "were a bunch of Civil War buffs," Mr. Lopez, 33, offered. And as a gay man, bullied as a child and closeted until college, he is familiar with the pain of being an outsider, which helps when probing issues of self-definition and discrimination. The three characters at the center of his play, "The Whipping Man," must figure out who they are now and what they'll do next, with the Civil War just ended and definitions of freedom and servitude being rewritten before their eyes.
Still, Mr. Lopez said: "I don't know if you need to belong to a certain group to tell a story. If you did, I would only write about gay Puerto Rican guys who live in Park Slope and have an obsession with stinky cheese."
He added, more seriously, "We as Americans have to take responsibility for our past, even if most of us in the country today are not descendants of slaveholders."
"The Whipping Man," a Manhattan Theater Club production that is Mr. Lopez's New York debut as a playwright, earned strong reviews during stops at four regional theaters. ("My graduate school," said Mr. Lopez, who has no formal training as a playwright and holds an undergraduate degree in theater performance from the University of South Florida in Tampa.)
Ebullient, fast talking, baby faced and seemingly guileless, he spoke between rehearsals at City Center, where his play has been in previews since Jan. 13. (It opens Feb. 1.) Doug Hughes ("Doubt"), a Tony Award winner, is the director, and the Emmy Award-winning actor Andre Braugher ("Men of a Certain Age," "Homicide: Life on the Streets") stars as the older of the slaves, a paternal, wise and devout man named Simon.
Aided by nerve and whiskey in an intense early scene, Simon amputates the leg of Caleb DeLeon (Jay Wilkison), the bitter and disillusioned scion of the family that owned him. Assisting Simon is another former slave, John (Andre Holland), who is smart, frustrated and bursting with dreams. Set over three days in 1865, the play puts these men together in the Richmond town house of the DeLeon family as the three plot their survival in a time of scarcity and ponder the past and future now that a way of life has vanished.
"It's an extraordinary story," Mr. Braugher said. Yet while its particulars seem highly unusual, he said, "I don't see Simon as far from anyone living today, as a father," noting the character's sense of responsibility to his wife and daughter, as well as to the DeLeon family.
Mr. Lopez came to New York in 2000 to try acting ("I was not very good") and ended up focusing on writing, another love. After watching films like "Glory," about a regiment of black troops during the Civil War, he said he became fascinated with the question of how a person could be a slave for most of his life and then suddenly be free. "Before and after, there is no clean break," he said. "How do you make that psychological change?"
It's not just a matter for the history books. "One of my characters says, ‘What do I do now?' " Mr. Lopez said. "I think that's a really important question. You can compare it to any great calamity. That question was asked after the Rwandan genocide, I'm sure. It was asked after the Holocaust. That question was asked after 9/11."
Parallels between Jews and African-Americans came to Mr. Lopez as he did research for his idea of a play set in the crucial month of April 1865, when the Civil War ended and Lincoln was assassinated. While reading scholarly books and the autobiography of Frederick Douglass, he stumbled upon a casual reference to the fact that in 1865 the Passover observance began the day after Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox.
It was this eureka moment," Mr. Lopez said. "As these slaves were being freed in the American South, there was this ancient observance of the Exodus story."
After Manhattan Theater Club took on the play, it turned to Jonathan D. Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, to authenticate some details.
There were about 50,000 Jews in the South on the eve of the Civil War, "and those who could afford to do so owned slaves; that was the Southern way," Mr. Sarna said in a e-mail message. Most Jews were recent immigrants, he added, and only a tiny number owned plantations.
The notion of slaves like John and Simon being raised as Jews is not without historical precedent. At least one Southern synagogue limited membership to whites in its constitution, Mr. Sarna said, implying the existence of nonwhite Jews. Some slaves converted to Judaism, he said, most commonly if they were the product of liaisons between a Jewish master and a slave.
The first incarnation of "The Whipping Man" was a 20-minute play called "The Soldier and the Slave." Stealing writing time between office jobs to support himself, Mr. Lopez sent it off with some other work to Cheryl Katz, the director of play development at Luna Stage, then in Montclair, N.J. She was immediately smitten with the Civil War drama.
"I saw that Matthew had a terrific ear for dialogue and the rhythm of the way people speak," said Ms. Katz, who worked closely as a dramaturge with Mr. Lopez to hone the story structure and characters. "He's got the whole package. He has an innate talent, his characters are vibrant; they jump off the page."
Developed over two years with public and in-house readings and many rewrites - the character of John was added along the way - "The Whipping Man" had its world premiere at Luna Stage in April 2006. Since then it has been done by Penumbra Theater Company in St. Paul, which specializes in African-American-theme material; Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass.; and the Old Globe Theater in San Diego.
It remains Mr. Lopez's only play produced by a professional theater company but has made him a hot property. He holds commissions from the Roundabout Theater Company and the Old Globe, and is a New York Theater Workshop playwriting fellow. He's working now on another play that looks at history through the prism of outsiders: "Tio Pepe," about a Puerto Rican family, some of them actors, whose Upper West Side home is torn down to make way for the construction of Lincoln Center in the 1960s. It's a story loosely based on his father's family - artists who have to leave their home, he said, "so a temple to artists can be built."
As Mr. Lopez rushed off to observe actors bringing "Whipping Man" to life, he took a moment to revel in how things had come together for him. He has a partner; he is writing; he is being produced in New York. New York! "If you're lucky," he said, "you learn to find a place for yourself. I've learned how not to feel like an outsider."
American Civil War Timeline 1865. <http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/timeline_acw_1865.html>
Crofts, Daniel W. "Late Antebellum Virginia Reconsidered." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. 107.3 (1999). P. 253-286. Print.
Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. 1855. Toronto: General Publishing Company, 1969. p. 33-334.
Evans, Eli N. Jewish Roots in Southern Soil. Boston: Brandeis University Press, 2006. p. 1-74.
Horowitz, Yaakov. "The American Pessach Experience." Jewish Action. Spring 5776: 2006. p. 36-40. <http://www.ou.org/pdf/ja/5766/spring66/PesachExp.pdf>
Huston, James L. "The Pregnant Economies of the Border South, 1840-1860: Virginia Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Possibilities of Slave Labor Expansion." The Old South's Modern Worlds. Ed. L. Diane Barnes, Brian Schoen, Frank Towers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Lonn, Ella. Desertion During the Civil War. Gloucester, MA, 1966. "Of Civil Seders in the Civil War." American Jewish Historical Society. <http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/US-Israel/Civilseders.html>
Onuf, Peter S. "Antebellum Southerners and the National Idea." The Old South's Modern Worlds. Ed. L. Diane Barnes, Brian Schoen, Frank Towers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Rosen, Robert N. The Jewish Confederates. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press. 2000. p. 1-280.
Schoen, Brian. "The Burdens and Opportunities of Interdependence: The Political Economies of the Planter Class." The Old South's Modern Worlds. Ed. L. Diane Barnes, Brian Schoen, Frank Towers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Winik, Jay. April 1865: The Month That Saved America. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2001.
Martinez, Jaime Amanda. "Slavery During the Civil War." Encyclopedia Virginia. <http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Slavery_During_the_Civil_War> Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
Civil War Soldiers. "Confederate Soldiers." Last updated Oct. 2002. Accessed 12/10/12. <http://www.civilwarsoldier.com/cws_confederate_soldiers.htm>.
Southern Historical Society Papers. Vol. II.
Richmond, Virginia, September, 1876. No. 3. "Detailed Minutiae Of Soldier Life In The Army Of Northern Virginia." Retrieved 12/10/12 from < http://www.civilwarhome.com/minutiae1.htm>.
Civil War Home. "Confederate Officer Rank Insignias." Last updated 032/10/02. Retrieved 12/11/12, <http://www.civilwarhome.com/csaofficerrank.htm>.
Sheehan-Dean, Aaron. "Desertion (Confederate) during the War." Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved 12/11/12 from <http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Desertion_Confederate_During_the_Civil_War>.
North Carolina Museum of History. "Civil War Army Organization and Rank." Retrieved 12/11/12 from <http://ncmuseumofhistory.org/workshops/cw/orgrank.htm>.
Decredico, Mary and Jaime Amanda Martinez. "Richmond During the Civil War." Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved 12/11/12 from <http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Richmond_During_the_Civil_War>
Derek Gaspar (Caleb) feels very fortunate to be making his Northlight debut on such an amazing play. His recent credits include Three Sisters and The March (Steppenwolf Theatre), Chicago Boys (Goodman Theatre), Waiting for Lefty (American Blues Theater) and Orpheus Descending (Shattered Globe). Other companies he has had the pleasure to work with include Court, Next, Timeline, Pinebox and Trap Door Theatres. He would like to thank Kimberly for this humbling opportunity to speak Matthew's beautiful words and thank the cast, crew and staff for all their support. He is represented by the dynamic Paonessa Talent Agency and is a proud member of Actor's Equity. Lastly, all my love to family, Mary, Maeve and Nina.
Sean Parris (John) is beyond excited to make his Northlight Theatre debut in such an amazing play with such an amazing group of people. Other Chicago credits include: The world premiere of A Girl with Sun in Her Eyes (Pine Box Theatre), Letters Home (Griffin Theatre), A Midsummer Night's Dream (Chicago Shakespeare), Pornography (Steep Theatre), Seascape (Remy Bumppo); Understudy in Angels In America (Court Theatre). Regional Credits include: Hamlet (Saratoga Shakespeare Festival). Sean is a graduate of The Theatre School at DePaul University. He is represented by Paonessa Talent Agency. He dedicates this show to his beautiful Mother (love you mom).
Tim Edward Rhoze (Simon) is the Producing Artistic Director of the Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre in Evanston, Illinois; he has directed For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, Having Our Say, Five Guys Named Moe, From the Mississippi Delta, Heat, Home, and playwright Tania Richards' solo performance in her autobiographical Truth Be Told. Tim has performed at the Goodman Theatre in over a dozen plays, and more than 30 other productions at Steppenwolf, Victory Gardens, Detroit Repertory Theatre, Detroit's Harmonie Park Playhouse, Plow Shares and Attic Theatres, Wayne State University's Hilberry Repertory, University of Detroit Theatre Company & Geva Theatre in Rochester New York. For my daughter Kara, the heart and soul of my life and my constant inspiration.
by Matthew Lopez
Directed by Kimberly Senior
Scenic Design Jack Magaw, USA
Costume Design Rachel Laritz, USA
Lighting Design Christine A. Binder, USA
Sound Design Christopher Kriz, USA
Production Dramaturg Dr. Kristin Leahey
Production Stage Manager Laura D. Glenn, AEA
Photo GalleryClick on any image to start the slideshow
Watch a scene from Northlight's The Whipping Man
Watch a scene from Northlight's The Whipping Man
The actors of The Whipping Man sit down to talk about the challenges of the play's language.
Derek Gaspar and Sean Parris discuss how themes of The Whipping Man are relevant to contemporary audiences.
The actors of The Whipping Man discuss the role of faith in the show.
Watch a video of the set of The Whipping Man being constructed onstage.
See Set Designer Jack Magaw discuss the meaning of setting.
Watch Director Kimberly Senior's introduction to The Whipping Man.
For more videos, click here.
Master and slaves, no longer bonded
January 27, 2013
By CHRIS JONES
Senior's Northlight production is an aptly unstinting affair that's uniformly well-acted. Gaspar, who is rendered immobile for much of this play, acts a great deal with his eyes, which shift around in terror, trying to assess his current chances and the motivations of a pair of men with whom he has shared his life but now are the ones in power. Parris has just the right note of coiled energy - years of resentment boiling to the surface but still subject to uncertainty and decency. And Rhoze avoids the trap of noble sentimentality with Simon, crucially focusing on the man's constant struggles to reconcile spiritual dignity with a determination that things will, for him, no longer be the same.
[O]ne suspects these very capable and raw actors will push each other further as this powerful production progresses from the merely familiar - enriching its striking theatricality and potently contrasted themes of American togetherness and loneliness, construction and destruction, brotherhood and oppression. Well worth seeing and not easy to put out of mind, "The Whipping Man" is a fine drama about a moment of seismic change and its impact on a trio of Americans, ordinary and yet three of a kind.
The Whipping Man at Northlight Theatre | Theater review
Matthew Lopez finds a compelling new angle on slavery and the Civil War.
TIME OUT CHICAGO
February 7, 2013
By KRIS VIRE
The intense popularity of young playwright Matthew Lopez’s "The Whipping Man," one of the most-produced works across the country in the last few years, also bears out our unrelenting interest. This smart and affecting play deserves the attention....
The writer finds what might seem impossible: a fresh angle on the war. Taking note of Passover’s proximity to the war’s end in 1865, Lopez imagines a wounded Jewish Confederate soldier returning to his parents’ home in Richmond, Virginia, to find it ransacked but occupied by two of his family’s longtime slaves, who are also practicing Jews....Kimberly Senior’s effective, compelling production, featuring three poignant performances on Jack Magaw’s handsome unit set, presents a challenging new take on our history of incivility.
Review: The Whipping Man
NEW CITY STAGE
January 26, 2013
By JOHNNY OLEKSINSKI
[D]irector Kimberly Senior lends her light and honest touch to the more history-laden sections, allowing the vividly rendered relationships to bear the blinding pain of the war at hand....The untethered pain is as physical as it is profoundly emotional. Caleb (Gaspar portrays a man in perpetual pain with little opportunity for blessed amelioration) returns home with a wounded leg, infected by gangrene, and Simon, experienced in these matters, knows the leg must be amputated. In the moments leading up to the amputation there is such impressive urgency and grave intensity from all, that as the fearsome and jagged saw makes contact with the leg, the audience wholeheartedly believes they are about to witness a wriggling limb be hacked away before their very eyes-a testament to committed, focused acting and supremely realized danger by Senior and violence designer Chris Rickett.
While the events leading up to the amputation are remarkably photorealistic, the story of Lopez's play is, at times, difficult to fully believe. But this is the theater, and it matters little. The unlikely situation these personable, struggling characters are thrust into enables bold, poetic, moving parallels drawn between the chosen people of Israel and the unjustly enslaved Africans of America-two divergent groups forged into one by their heroic and most unfortunate trials and tribulations. As Simon emphatically shouts "Brother Abraham! Brother Abraham!" in celebration of President Lincoln's fallen life and in gratitude of his titanic resolve, it is never clearer that only the outlying idealism of such brave men and women can part the rain clouds.
Northlight's THE WHIPPING MAN Explores The Cost of Freedom
January 29, 2013
By MICHAEL J. ROBERTS
If there is ever a doubt about the true emotional rawness of theatre, one only has to attend the Chicago premiere of Matthew Lopez' powerful drama "The Whipping Man" to see the full force of the medium in action. Set in the seemingly post apocalyptic aftermath of the Civil War, this three person drama instantly brings the audience into a world in which the tyranny of slavery has just ended and the master/slave juxtaposition is turned on its head, all in the spirit of a brilliant Mark Twain novel....
Director Kimberly Senior perfectly paces this material as well as allowing her actors to find their own rhythm. Ms. Senior has also cast three actors who go well beyond their own comfort levels and dig deep into the physiological damage their characters inhabit.
....What shines most about Mr. Lopez' work is the humanity of the characters. Even with the most abhorrent of actions, each characteris given great breath to make them multi-dimensional. By doing this, The Whipping Man is a unique exploration of trust, faith and forgiveness at a time when the aggrieved began their journey of the concept of freedom.
"Whipping Man" explores war, religion and change
January 17, 2013
By MYRNA PETLICKI
Three Jewish men celebrate Passover with a Seder, retelling the story of the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt.
This particular Seder has added meaning in Matthew Lopez's "The Whipping Man" at Northlight Theatre. The three men are Caleb, a wounded Confederate soldier who has just returned to his family's home in Richmond, Virginia, and John and Simon, two of his father's former slaves who still live there.
Caleb is played by Derek Gaspar. Prior to the war, Gaspar said, his character could be described as "a rich boy from the South figuring out who he is and putting his father on a pedestal. He's got all the typical young men issues, trying to figure out what he believes. I wouldn't say he's much of a deep thinker, until the war. He spent four years at war and that really changed him. It opened his eyes. He started seeing a lot of pain and destruction, and also saw a side of himself that he had never seen before. He's in a place of complete identity crisis."
Gaspar first discovered "The Whipping Man" when he was in graduate school at the Theatre School at DePaul University, looking for scenes to do with his best friend, Sean Parris. By a stroke of luck, Parris was cast in the Northlight production as John, the younger of the two slaves.
Parris described his character as "a conundrum. He's both cynical and optimistic. He's bursting with dreams and hope. He's definitely happy to be free but the big question that comes up in this play - not only for him but for everybody - is, ‘What do we do now?'
"He's an educated young guy who definitely doesn't heed to the old ways at all," Parris continued. "He's always asking questions. He's ambitious but it's laced with bitterness. You can see ways it could go if he holds onto that bitterness - which he has a right to. You also can see the other end of the spectrum - if he lets go of that how wide the future is for him."
Tim Edward Rhoze, producing artistic director of Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre in Evanston, plays Simon, a slave who is a generation older than John and Caleb. He has served Caleb's family for most of his life. "There is no back-story of his youth there," Rhoze said. "But I have been able to piece it together like a puzzle."
Those pieces include the fact that Simon is married, even though it was illegal for slaves to marry at that time, and that he has a daughter.
"He probably never thought that he would be emancipated," Rhoze posited. "He is ultimately elated but also overwhelmed and overcome by the fact that freedom has now reached him at his doorstep. He's looking to put his life together anew but it's challenging because all his life he's been in servitude and owned by someone. He's a complicated individual in that he's illiterate, because he can't read or write, but he's extremely wise."
Simon practices Judaism because of "the household he grew up in," Rhoze said. "It was the teachings that he heard and the practicing of the Jewish holidays and festivals that gave him his strong belief in God."
The Seder has significance for all three characters.
Initially Gaspar's Caleb "strongly resists the Seder," the actor said. "He has a strong respect for it but, at the same time, he's not sure he wants to be a part of it."
Parris believes that, for John, the Seder means "stability and family. Even after all the bickering and arguing and confusion, this is the one thing where we can come together and see that we're similar."
Rhoze believes that the Seder is for Simon, "an affirmation yearly of his faith that things will be better. When? He doesn't know. The fact that he has that faith will sustain him until it happens."
Matthew Lopez's "The Whipping Man"
How the young writer’s first play became one of the most produced in the country.
TIME OUT CHICAGO
January 17, 2013
By KRIS VIRE Theatre critic
In September, the industry association Theatre Communications Group released its annual tally of the most-produced playwrights of the new season, as reported by TCG's nearly 500 member theaters. With the usual caveats (i.e., Shakespeare and A Christmas Carol don't count), the list was topped by Pulitzer winner David Lindsay-Abaire with 19 productions. Second place was a four-way tie, with 15 productions each for Pulitzer winner David Mamet, Pulitzer winner Donald Margulies, Pulitzer winner Bruce Norris and...Matthew Lopez.
"Yeah, I don't get it either," Lopez says, laughing.
The Brooklyn-based playwright, 35, is on the phone from Palo Alto, California, where TheatreWorks is producing his play Somewhere, about a Puerto Rican family inspired by the shooting of the film West Side Story in their neighborhood. But his other 14 productions this season-including at Skokie's Northlight Theatre-are of his first play, The Whipping Man.
By TCG's count, that makes The Whipping Man the season's third-most-produced play, behind only Lindsay-Abaire's Good People and Norris's Clybourne Park. That's a remarkable achievement for a work without the prestige of a Broadway production or a brand-name writer-just as remarkable as Lopez's unorthodox path to playwriting.
"I learned how to write writing this play," says Lopez, who trained as an actor at the University of South Florida. "I never went to Sundance, I never went to the O'Neill, I never went to grad school. I just worked on this play, and I was oddly fortunate to have production opportunities, which is so outside the norm."
The Whipping Man takes place at the end of the Civil War, when a wounded Jewish Confederate soldier returns home to find two of his father's former slaves, who are also practicing Jews; secrets are exposed as the three men celebrate Passover.
"It has a new perspective on the Civil War that we're not normally familiar with, and that's the Jewish one," says Kimberly Senior, who helms the Northlight production. "When I first read it, I was like, ‘Wow, that's a really great play-but Jews didn't own slaves,' " she recalls, laughing. "Maybe I'm an idiot, but as a Jew, I didn't know that."
Lopez, a self-described "gay Puerto Rican boy who grew up in the panhandle of Florida," anticipates the question of how he came to write about black Jews in Civil War-era Virginia. He was a theater-obsessed kid dazzled by seeing his aunt, Tony winner Priscilla Lopez, perform on Broadway. (She's now in the cast of Somewhere.) His younger brother was similarly spellbound by the Civil War film Glory and the Ken Burns documentary series. When his brother got into Civil War re-enactments, he says, "I was moved by the theatricality of it. Later I became a convert to the Civil War as history, but initially I loved the drama."
The Whipping Man premiered at New Jersey's Luna Stage in 2006, and received several more productions at theaters such as San Diego's Old Globe and the Berkshires' Barrington Stage; in 2011, it had its Off Broadway debut at Manhattan Theatre Club.
Along the way, influential fans of the script passed it around. "I don't think the play was ever e-mailed, even. It was literally hard copies handed to each other," says Lopez, now a staff writer on HBO's The Newsroom. "It's so old-fashioned. It's so George Abbott and Harold Prince, you know? I really had a 1940s kind of education in theater."
Winter Theatre 2013: Ten Shows for the Cold
September 16, 2011
By CHRIS JONES Tribune Critic
"The Whipping Man": The hot Chicago director Kimberly Senior, fresh from New York's Lincoln Center, stages the first Chicago production of Matthew Lopez's intense off-Broadway drama wherein a Confederate soldier finds himself in the company of two former slaves, who share his Jewish faith. Read more>