Kevin Lamb, Matthew-Lee Erlbach‘s drama about an act of violence involving a white University of Chicago professor and a black student, will get a Manhattan reading at the DR2 Theatre at 3 PM April 21. The script was a 2013 finalist in the National Playwrights Conference of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.
Michael Berresse ([title of show]) directs a cast that includes Adriane Lenox, Chris Sarandon, Margo Seibert, Peter Francis James and Sheldon Best. The presentation is sponsored by the Vineyard Theatre. Learn more about the play’s O’Neill NPC Finalist status.
Erlbach, an actor and playwright, appeared in his play Handbook for an American Revolutionary Off-Broadway at the Gym at Judson in 2013. He’s also one of the creators of the antic post-hipster comedy web series “Roger, The Chicken.”
Here’s how the writer bills the six-actor Kevin Lamb (3M, 3F): “It’s Christmas Eve on Chicago’s North Side, where racial tensions and personal demons are awakened as two families cope with a deadly altercation between a white University of Chicago professor and a young black student, Kevin Lamb.”
Erlbach fielded a handful of questions about his dawning work, his background and his influences.
What prompted the idea for Kevin Lamb?
Matthew-Lee Erlbach: I read an article about a 65-year-old man in Reading, PA, who was riding his bike along the Schuylkill River one morning. He was ambushed by three teens who had skipped school and attempted to rob him. He had a gun, shot, killed one of the teens — an African-American — and the DA ruled it a justifiable homicide. Pretty open and shut. There were around two articles about it. Never went to trial. Never mentioned his name. So, my questions were: Who was guy? Who was this kid? Since it never went to trial, this guy is allowed to keep his anonymity, which is understandable. The family name of the deceased is public. So, I needed to know what happened next. The play, for me, began with the burden of this secret this rather isolated man carried and then his family that discovers it, and then what happens when the mother of the slain comes to find answers. That’s all that hit me immediately. It seemed really ripe for a play and to work all this stuff out. Then the Trayvon Martin murder happened and that changed some things as well. Theatre is always playing a game of catch-up.
What did you “see” first when you were conjuring this play? A character? An event? An idea?
Matthew-Lee Erlbach: I saw all these people in the living room together and kept going back to this idea that we create a narrative, a legacy for the dead. This brought me pretty quickly to Christmas: The first thing I saw was Christmas Eve and this rather well-to-do guy who hadn’t seen his family in a while, hiding this event from his family. When I put them in a room and got them talking, I learned these families had a lot of other things to deal with. Then, the Christmas Eve idea really began to pay off because of the bigger themes I was able to unpack in this holiday — and the humor that comes out of it. Here’s a time where we’re forced to be with family and love each other and all this holiday cheer — but underneath, they’re dealing with life, death, redemption, and access to justice. And in a lot of ways, martyrdom.
In your mind, is the play a discussion of race, or something bigger?
Matthew-Lee Erlbach: This play is about the thinness of civilization, and how we play by the rules of society even when something unthinkable happens. Usually I’d make this funny because I tend to write comedy but this just happened to come out as a drama, so I let it go there. I want this play to be right at the breaking point, right at the moment that “societization” (new word) starts to crack, where we make the decision to either be primal human or civilized person.
So in that sense, I want to investigate how does the mother of her slain son not kill the man who committed the act? Isn’t that our primal instinct? Revenge is primal; justice is social. So, that’s a line to balance some tension on. So when that justice system is against you, or doesn’t give you access, then you should take justice into your own hands, right? I feel like we’re always on the brink. Ukraine right now is a perfect example of what happens when a leader in a “civilized” order starts to break the rules. We’re not used to that. But there’s pockets of the world where this is the norm: parts of Detroit, Oakland, Chicago, Central African Republic, Sudan, etc.
I say all this because while race is certainly an element in the play, the play is really about two families trying to maintain the integrity of civil society when a terrible thing has happened. And something [director] Michael Berresse and I have talked about a lot is how justice, redemption and legacy play a role in the larger themes of the play as well. He’s been such a fierce supporter of this play and its development, bringing up key questions as to what kind of work this play is trying to do.
Finally, I think American audiences are going to bring all our racial history to this play because that’s one of our big crosses to bear as a nation, this construction of “race” and what that’s done to us. It’s inevitable. But race is really just another layer of the play. How’s that for concise?
The play begins with the immediate aftermath of a crime, and there is a quality of mystery about it — you don’t immediately address the event in the next scene. To be reductive, is the play purposely a “mystery” on some level?
Matthew-Lee Erlbach: Well, we start the play on July Fourth, America’s figurative birthday. And then we’re six months later on Christmas Eve, the recognized birth of Jesus. So, I’m doing a couple things. Thematically, I’m setting up the argument of the play as to whether or not Man is God or Monster. Structurally, I’m trying to set up the tension of the play and the question — what really happened. And then when we’re in the next scene, why isn’t anyone addressing this? Do they know? Has he dealt with it? Where are we on the timeline? Slowly, the layers get revealed and it’s more complicated than we had expected. I’m trying to build and relieve and build as much tension as I can; you should feel tense throughout the play.
Why Chicago? And, for people who don’t know Rogers Park, why is the professor in that neighborhood?
Matthew-Lee Erlbach: I grew up in Rogers Park in Chicago, so anytime I can write about where I’m from, I’m proud to do it. It’s a quintessential Chicago neighborhood that’s culturally diverse but has had a growing problem of gun violence. Chicago is murder city right now and it’s very sad to see. I wanted to set this both on the North Side and the South Side (Hyde Park), because the geography of where these families are is important to their story as well. Setting this story in Chicago allows me to address another issue without ever having to address it. I’m also worried about my city.
The play’s first scenes hint at racial conflict, but also generational conflict. Hank, the professor, has a socially-aware firebrand of a daughter railing against power. How important to you was this idea of the distance between young and old?
Matthew-Lee Erlbach: I think that that distance is everything. It’s her version of justice versus his. Her version of the world versus his. Her version of changing the system versus his. Same thing with Kevin. It’s Kevin’s version of the world versus his parents. The white and black experiences of justice, historically, are complex and unbalanced. For every white man that gets off killing a black teen, there’s an O.J. Simpson that people point to. And the reverse is true, too. We carry so much guilt and anger about it, and a new generation that’s dealing with the same issues but masked. Before, it was overt law. Now, it’s covert law, with voting rights, etc. So the game is a sneakier now — and my generation has to be reminded to be informed and work at dismantling injustice — it’s not just a footnote in some grayscale history, the struggle continues. And that’s part of the schism, generationally, here.
It’s also [about] this fallacy of “post-racial America,” which is the most machine-washed pretty-in-pink sound bite you could imagine. Race, wealth inequality, and class are three heads of a very dangerous beast threatening to undo decades of policy and practices that made our society great. Of course, the play is about these people dealing with this tragic event — but those bigger ideas are in the room as well.
Matthew-Lee Erlbach: Very but also not at all. As far as content goes, I’m generally drawn to going to where the silence is — deep in the mountains of Appalachia, the lonely house on your block — and finding who lives there, what makes them tick, and how we’re more alike then we are different. With that said, I also feel a civic responsibility to write plays that rip the Band-Aid off with a little skin, too, so we can see what’s really going on in our communities, our nation and our world. I write a lot about the promise of the American Dream, a kind of secular religion for our nation that has both helped us and destroyed us. The more nuanced version of this is often the most successful. Style and form-wise, I tend to do what works for the story. The past year I had a farce in rhyming verse up at Ars Nova and before that a solo play, and now I’m working on a very theatrical piece, so whatever’s best to tell the story, I’ll do that.
The title struck me. Is “Lamb” a metaphor — something gentle, something to be sacrificed?
Matthew-Lee Erlbach: The play takes place on Christmas Eve, the birth of the Lamb of God; the lamb which also gets sacrificed. So yeah, Kevin is both a spectre and character in the play used in a similar way as a symbol of sacrifice but also a symbol of innocence, redemption, and radical justice.
Do you write with “theme” in mind, or do you write characters, events and situations, letting theme emerge?
Matthew-Lee Erlbach: I’m so glad you asked that. Theme is everything. I don’t always start there but theme is the argument of the play and without it, the story has no backbone, so it’s very important to me that the theme emerges clearly for me — and then for the audience. I usually start with characters and an event or situation. I’m writing a farce set in the Central African Republic right now and it started off with an absurd premise — and then I had to figure out what the argument was in a clear sentence.
What’s your next project? What else are you working on?
Matthew-Lee Erlbach: I’m working on a few things. As I mentioned, I’m finishing a farce that takes place in the Central African Republic and a play about an intergenerational relationship in a Florida residential community. And I’m working on a dark comedy in verse called King George III, which is more epic than I realized, about the Revolutionary War, as told in the plantations, the shipyards, and the brothels. It’s a beast.
Was theatergoing part of your family’s life when you were a child? What was your exposure to theater?
Matthew-Lee Erlbach: I grew up in Chicago and, yeah, theater was very much a part of my upbringing. My parents took me to a lot of theater. And my aunt took me to comedy shows. So, really, this is all their fault because that was a very big component of my growing up. Really, it was an education in understanding the world through performance, which I think everyone should have. I think it makes us more empathic. Kinder. And collaborative.
Can you share a little about your path to playwriting? You’re also an actor — did playwriting rise out of that, or were you writing plays when you were a kid?
Matthew-Lee Erlbach: I was painting when I was a kid. I was supposed to be an illustrator/painter. That’s what we all thought when I started placing in competitions and getting scholarships to various art programs and classes. My room at home is still filled with all my stuff. I didn’t start writing plays until college. And they were terrible plays. I didn’t know what I was doing. But when I got to NYC, all the questions I had politically, socially, personally, had to go somewhere and I needed a platform. So I got more serious about writing and began to teach myself structure, character, and really train myself to look at writing as a craft, so I could understand what I was trying to master, what I’ll always be trying to master. I have a long way to go. A friend of mine recently said that there’s a reason the word “wright” is in “playwright” and it’s because it takes a lot of work. She’s very right.
Can you name some plays or playwrights that you love? Or some writers you feel have influenced your work?
Matthew-Lee Erlbach: I feel like the list is always changing but the staples for me are Odets, Rod Serling, Chekhov, Lynn Nottage, Tracy Letts, Amiri Baraka, Kurt Vonnegut, Shakespeare and Richard Matheson. Also, really into Tarell Alvin McCraney, Amy Herzog, Annie Baker, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Jackie Sibbles Drury. Seeing their stuff on stage has been pretty inspiring. Also, I just started Ars Nova‘s Play Group this year and have to say the diversity of writing in that group continues to be a source of influence. It’s a great group of writers.
Matthew-Lee Erlbach is an actor and writer whose most recent writing credits include Eager to Lose, a Burlesque Farce in Rhyming Verse, at Ars Nova (Wes Grantom and Portia Krieger, directors); Handbook for an American Revolutionary at Gym at Judson (Tony Speciale, director); and the award-winning “Roger, the Chicken,” produced with Emmy-winner Carrie Preston. He has also written for Nickelodeon, WWE and MTV. As an actor, he has appeared Off-Broadway, regionally, in “Another Earth” (Sundance/Fox Searchlight), on Comedy Central, MTV, “Law & Order: SVU,” and elsewhere. He is a member of Ars Nova‘s 2014-15 Play Group.
For more, visit Matthew-Lee.com.