For many years, Matthew Lopez has been a Latino playwright whose many plays were produced in Hartford Stage and TheaterWorks. Each time one of his plays is presented, he has been generous enough with his time to grant me an interview or to meet with me.
Hartford, in particular, has nurtured his talent, not only producing his plays but also having received the support of the Aetna Playwrights program in 2012, providing him with a residency to continue working on his plays. Both the Aetna Playwrights program in 2012, and productions of his play, have, according to Lopez, given him courage,” It’s a kind of relationship that I imagine any writer would dream of having with a theatre.”
I first interviewed Lopez in 2015, when Hartford Stage was about to produce his play Reverberation. His two previous plays, The Whipping Man – quickly became one of the most produced plays nationally and received the Obie and Lucille Lortel Awards for an off-Broadway production. In 2013, his play Somewhere had a reading during the Festival Brand/New presented by Hartford Stage, and a complete staging also at Hartford Stage, in 2014 with his aunt, the well-known actress Priscilla Lopez. She was in the original cast of “A Chorus Line” in the lead role.
As a writer, Lopez doesn’t follow a formula. Each one of his plays deals with very different issues: slavery and freedom (Whipping Man), a theater-loving Puerto Rican family about to be evicted (Somewhere), or a gay man devastated at the end of a relationship (Reverberation). A collaboration with Hartford Stage, under the auspices of the Aetna Playwrights program in 2012.
As if receiving an award for best play of the year, and being the first Latino to obtain such an award, were not significant enough achievements; we must listen to the words Lopez spoke during his acceptance speech which, I hope, will reverberate within the theater producers and those in power to open doors to other talented Latino playwrights.
Lopez reminded us that “We constitute 19% of the U.S. population, and we represent about 2% of the playwrights having plays on Broadway in the last decade. This must change.” While the use of Latinx has become in the USA (not widely accepted in countries in Latin America, or in many immigrant communities in the USA) – during his speech, Lopez introduced yet another variation, “Latine” substituting the “e” for the “x.” I’ve not accepted the “x,” and now I’ll have to deal with the “e” Personally, I think we should leave our beautiful Spanish language as it was developed through centuries of changes and its final adaptation and accept it as is.
The play which finally catapulted Lopez into this moment in the history of the Tony awards was “The Inheritance.” An exploration of the repercussions of the AIDS epidemic in the lives of gay men. The play was first produced in London in 2018; due to its success, it was brought to the U.S. in 2019. It took four of the awards during the ceremony.
The following is an excerpt from our conversation first published in CTLatinoNews.com.
April 2, 2018.
B.R.: When did you become interested in the theater?
ML: I think I can literally pinpoint the day that my life changed. It was the day my parents took me to see Hollywood/Ukraine, and I got to see this wonderful show, and I got to see [my aunt] Priscilla be Harpo Marx and then go backstage and see her. There’s this one photo that is of me sitting on her dressing table at four and a half years old, and she’s putting on her makeup, and I’m watching her. There’s this wonderful interaction between the two of us, and of all the photos, that is my favorite because I can see in my eyes and in my face the look of a life-changing. That is precisely the moment I think the rest of the course of my life was changed and determined.
B.R.: At a panel at Mark Twain you mentioned you wanted to be an actor..what happened?
ML: There were several factors informing that decision. I’d been acting in professional and amateur theater since I was seven. I studied acting in college and when I arrived in New York to finally pursue a career, there was a part of me that was already burnt out on it. I had taken a playwriting course my junior year and it opened my eyes to new ways of storytelling that I had never considered for myself. I discovered I was more interested in staying at home and writing than I was in going to vocal lessons, dance classes, or auditions. It was a very subtle yet definite shift in my priorities. As I grew in confidence as a writer, I began to share my work with friends and colleagues and I found the encouragement I needed to continue and to ultimately leave acting completely and focus all my energies on writing. There is something ephemeral about acting on stage that I suspect is alluring to many actors. It wasn’t for me. I liked the definitiveness of writing, even as it changes and grows in development and production. There’s also the question of ownership. I wrote The Whipping Man and Somewhere and Reverberation. I own them. Someday someone will inherit them. I like that idea.
B.R.: Your plays deal with many different issues, how do you choose them?
ML: I can never predict what is going to capture my interest and draw me to create. I think it comes primarily from curiosity. I like to play the “what if” game with subjects. “What if slaves owned by Jewish families adopted that religion?” “What if a family living in the proposed footprint of Lincoln Center in 1959 were completely devoted to Jerome Robbins and his work?” “What if a straight guy became a drag queen?” That leads to the next important question of “why?” And then “who?” And so on.
If you look at my first three plays, The Whipping Man, Somewhere, and this play Reverberation, there is no superficial connection between them. The first is set in 1865, the second in 1959, and the last in the present. And there was no conscious attempt to link the plays in any way. They were just three separate plays. But once I finished Reverberation, I looked back at all three of them and I realized that what they are all about is the idea that the world is dangerous and that it is safer inside. The three men in The Whipping Man are hiding in that destroyed home from the chaos and the danger of Richmond just after the fall to Union forces; the family in Somewhere are battened down against the irresistible force of Robert Moses and his willful remaking of the city; the characters in Reverberation see the world as menacing; they all see men as dangerous, the city in which they live as unsafe for them and so they huddle in their apartments, attempting to ward off the dangers of the world together. I’ve since gone on to write about drag queens and I’m preparing to write a large play for Hartford Stage about the impact of the AIDS epidemic on succeeding generations of gay men (based on E.M. Forster’s Howards End). But those first three plays perhaps represent where I was in my thinking and emotions at the time that I wrote them. Unofficially, I refer to those three plays as my “Agoraphobia Trilogy.”
B.R.: Do you have a favorite playwright?
ML: I have too many. It depends on what you’re looking for in any particular moment. I am a perpetual student. If it weren’t for the friendship and the influence of Christopher Shinn, I would have never written this play. He paved the way for my generation to write honestly about our common humanity and our fears, hopes, and ailments. I don’t think he gets enough recognition for that fact. Williams and O’Neill are at the top for me. Miller and Odets and Wilson and Inge. Kushner and Churchill and Simon and Ayckbourn. Oscar Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim. Arthur Laurents. Rajiv Joseph and Annie Baker.
For the past twenty years, I’ve been interviewing Latino actors performing in Connecticut stages, and playwrights whose plays were produced. My work has appeared on my page “LatinArte News” in Identidad Latina, and in articles in CTLatinoNews.com. I have been honored to have the opportunity to meet so many talented people involved in many aspects of the presentation of a play, from choreography to directing. For me, Matthew Lopez’s Tony award is the culmination, the moment when the dreams of our Latino brothers and sisters in the theater have finally become a reality.
I hope we won’t have to wait another 74 years for this to happen again.