Matthew Lopez studied theater at the University of South Florida in Tampa, but he majored in performance, not in playwriting. He's never had any formal training as a playwright and "The Whipping Man" was his first play.
That's only one of the amazing aspects of "The Whipping Man." After some acclaimed regional productions starting in 2006, "The Whipping Man" hit New York in 2010, where it won an Obie Award for actor Andre Braugher and ran for 101 performances.
It has since become one of the most frequently produced plays in the country, and perhaps the most talked-about contemporary play. It's currently on the stage at Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe in Sarasota.
It's easy to see why the play has become such a sensation. It's powerfully written and constructed, talky but startling, dramatic but philosophical. Its characters are memorable, its story is compelling and its ideas are fresh.
And the WBTT production brings Lopez' words and characters to life with powerful performances by all three of its actors.
Initially, the audience's focus is likely to be on Taurean Blacque, who played the deep-voiced and swaggering Neal Washington for seven years on "Hill Street Blues." Now 72, he's gray and balding, but his stage presence is powerful and his performance is sturdy but delicate.
The other two cast members are Sarasota native Drew Foster and Indiana-based Robert Douglas. Their performances are every bit as compelling as Blacque's.
The play opens just after the Civil War, when Confederate soldier Caleb, played by Foster, limps into his once-grand Virginia home, seriously wounded. The house has been looted and burned, and all its residents have fled, except for two slaves whom he considers members of his family.
The older slave (Blacque) examines Caleb's wounded leg and sees it has to be amputated. Caleb refuses to go to the Army hospital, so the slaves cut off his leg in an unforgettable scene.
For the rest of the play, the helpless master and the now-free slaves discuss their pasts and their futures. Secrets emerge, and Lopez doles them out judiciously. Each secret alters the dynamics between the characters, and changes the tone of their relationship and their discussion. There were audible gasps from the opening-night audience as some of those secrets became known. But they all make internal sense, and flow naturally out of the situation and the dialogue.At the play's end, the characters have been changed but nothing has been resolved. Lopez doesn't yield to the convention of tying up loose ends and neatly answering questions. There's a sense that the characters and their stories go on past the final curtain.
The backdrop to the story is that Caleb and his family are Jews, and they have raised their slaves in the Jewish faith. The day after Lee's surrender happened to be the start of Passover, so together the three men celebrate the Jews' freedom from Egyptian slavery. The situation and the secrets make the ceremony reverent but tense.
Director Howard J. Millman and his cast do profound work here, but the lasting impression comes not from the production or the performances but from Lopez' script. Lopez was only around 30 when "The Whipping Man" premiered. If he writes five or six plays this good in his life, he could be remembered as one of America's great playwrights.
Details: "The Whipping Man" continues through Feb. 2 at West Coast Black Theatre Troupe, 1646 10th Way, Sarasota. Curtain is at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $29.50. To order tickets or to get more information, call 941-366-1505 or go to www.wbttroupe.com.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.