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News Thu Oct 18 2012

A Playwright's Experience and Humanities in Hyde Park

The Chicago Humanities Festival dependably provides a bevy of literary programming with each passing season. It's well curated and timely, often bringing matters literary into the scope of current events. Last Sunday, I attended a conversation between Northwestern University Professor of Performance Studies and African American Studies E. Patrick Johnson, and Playwright Matthew Lopez whose show, The Whipping Man, is scheduled to open here in Chicago in January. lopez-whipping.jpeg

The Whipping Man tells the story of a Jewish confederate soldier returning to a ruined home in Richmond, Virginia just after the town was destroyed. His family has fled the scene, and the wreckage of his home is occupied by two newly freed men his family once owned as slaves. The three carry out an unlikely Passover Seder and in doing so, depict the dichotomy at play where Judaism and slavery have intersected in American history.

Lopez described being asked why he, a Latino man without Jewish roots, chose to tackle this particular topic. His answer: "We have a responsibility to tell one another's stories."

The mechanics of the three-character, one set production were noted, but the conversation remained focused on the writing. Lopez talked about his experience going from stage actor to writer, and about his first piece of writing -- an episode of "Mr. Belvedere" when he was 9. Lopez said he's always been more a writer than anything else.

"Acting made me the playwright I am," Lopez said. "As I writer, I have to be in a corner watching the actors to process the work and see, OK, yes, I need to work on that."

Lopez said his writing process generally begins with a thematic idea; in the case of The Whipping Man, he was interested in approaching Slavery, a significant part of the American experience, from an unexplored angle. Further, he said he was fascinated by the challenge of confining the characters to a single set with the almost real-time Seder, as well as one character's immobility due to injury.

If you missed this conversation, fret not -- there's more happening on the literary front for the Festival's Hyde Park Day on Sunday, Oct. 21: cabrini.jpeg

University of Illinois faculty Audrey Petty, is set to discuss her book, High Rise Stories, forthcoming from McSweeny's Voice of Witness book series, that addresses Chicago's public housing history from a too-often unvoiced perspective. Petty interviewed past residents, and compiled an impressive oral history from Cabrini-Green and the Robert Taylor Homes among others. The narrative offers a nuanced story of struggling communities, beyond the well-worn descriptions of violent, narcotic-saturated spaces. Sara Levine, author of Treasure Island!!! and faculty at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, will interview Petty.

New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik has written on family and food extensively in his career, consistently folding his sense of humor in with social commentary. In his newest book, The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food, Gopnik discusses the way a culture of eating has evolved from inside French restaurants of the 18th century to America's current farm-to-table fixation. Chicago Sun Times Columnist Neil Steinberg will lead the discussion.

New York Jazz pianist Fred Hersch will perform his musical interpretation of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass with a topnotch group of East Coast and Chicago musicians, including Jim Gailloreto and Kate McGarry. Hersch has discussed a life-long fascination with Whitman's masterpiece, and in his liner notes, describes his process as allowing the words to guide the composition: "In setting out to compose the music, I had no idea where these words would take me. But I followed my instincts and, away from the piano, simply started to sing the poems."

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