On January 8, in a spare, minimalist studio at Condé Nast, Lena Waithe and Matthew Lopez sat down to speak to each other about Inclusivity and the Arts. Presented by the Condé Nast Global Diversity and Inclusion Council, David Remnick, Whembley Sewell, and Anna Wintour, the discussion is the first in an intended series to facilitate important cultural conversations.
Lopez makes his Broadway debut this season with the two-part epic The Inheritance. Inspired by the E.M. Forster novel Howard’s End, Lopez uses his opus to expose what it means to be a gay man in a new era (specifically 2015-2017) where the closet is old news yet full ownership of identity isn’t as easy as it seems. The playwright weaves sex, romance, politics, and family in a story about class disparity, friendship, and connection to history. Waithe broke out with her performance and her writing work on Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, for which she won the Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series. Since then, she has created series like Twenties, The Chi, and Boomerang, and recently wrote the screenplay to her first feature Queen & Slim about a black couple whose first date goes awry when they’re pulled over by the police.
A queer black writer-actor-producer and a queer Latinx playwright, Waithe and Lopez got honest about their writing processes, the burdens they feel as representatives of their communities (both queer and of color), controversies surrounding their work, and the ways in which they wield their visibility to continue progress.
On Representation in Casting
Lopez: The decision was who do I want to write this for? What actors do I want to write this for? And the answer I came up with is I want to write this for all actors. If I write Toby as a Latinx character, that means Jeremy Pope can never play him. So I just decided... no defining racial identity. Let the humanity of the character be the humanity of the character and let the actor who plays the role fill that in. … There is a great importance on holding people accountable. I think that’s what is going on. But there is also counterbalance to holding people accountable is also then engaging with the art as it’s made, engaging with the intention of the artist as it is presented to you. The idea for me of creating these characters was the idea ‘I want anyone to be able to play these parts.’ Yes, I consciously wrote Eric as a white character because I wanted to use the idea of Judaism and the history of Judaism as a metaphor. … At the end of the day you have to write your characters as the characters they want to be. … I want to share my experience as a gay man, I want to share my experience as a person who has dealt with addiction in his life, I want to talk about class the way Forster did.
Waithe: Casting movies with black people, there is a controversy of, "You can’t cast a light-skinned woman with a brown-skinned man. If you do, you’re gonna get killed." I have the thing where I have two black leads in my film who are British. That is also a whole situation. Mind you, it was very organic. Daniel Kuluuya is a friend of mine, and he read the script and said, “I have to be Slim.” I said, “OK, let me talk to [director] Melina [Matsoukas]. … But then the thing was, Melina and I decided to say Daniel can be Slim, this makes sense, but this is an opportunity to break an actress for Queen. Our rule was she has to be brown-skinned and we want her to be American. That’s what we told our casting director. Then Jodie Turner-Smith walked into our lives. She was born in the U.K., but moved here when she was nine and is more Jamaican than she was British. We were like, “OK, maybe that can be the spin.” Luckily, we were kind of OK. We did get some flack for it. But there is this new thing where even the casting process was politicized, and for us, we just want to make sure it’s the best thing.
On Comparisons of The Inheritance to Angels in America
Lopez: It’s not a helpful comparison. No one said to Tony Kushner, "Oh, you’re the next so-and-so." Let just let Tony Kushner be Tony Kusher and they let Angels in America be Angels in America and they took it on its own terms. Yes it’s flattering but it’s also not helpful because it’s not what I intended. Assumed intentionality [is a problem].
On Visibility vs. Self-Protection
Lopez: For me one of the things that has been really vulnerable for me as a writer is not even writing about addiction or writing about these things that are very personal, it’s actually writing about…. when queer people write about sex it still makes people nervous. The reason that people were allowed to die in the tens of thousands in the '80s and the '90s is because it made people uncomfortable to think about how they contracted it. It made people think about gay sex, and it weirded them out. We don’t shy away from sex in the play. I like to think it’s a main selling point for the play. But I think even within our own community when we start to… visibility comes at a price, which is you are known. You are known. No community is perfect and no community doesn’t have issues with itself. And when we ask for visibility we ask not just Pollyanna, we get it all, and I think the balance really is celebration mixed with investigation. Because pure celebration is worthless, but if it’s pure investigation then it’s heartless. It’s absolutely crucial to have both.
Waithe: I agree with that. Also because there are so few out black women in this business—I think I can name them on one hand in terms of being out. It’s like me, Samira Wiley, Wanda Sykes. So few of us. I think even looking at Ellen [DeGeneres] at the Golden Globes, it’s this interesting thing about having to be perfect. Ellen is kind, lovely, sweet, daytime. … But I feel like I have to be a poster child for the queer, black, masculine-presenting lesbian community. Which, look, I’ll bear the burden but I’ll also take a lot of hits because I’m human. That’s been frustrating to me because people are out here wanting me to be pristine.
On Future Progress
Waithe: I’m grateful for the strides that we’re making, but the truth is if you think about how many channels there actually are and think about how many movies come out in a year, you think about vocations. Sometimes if there’s a little bit it seems like an avalanche but it really is still just a drop in the bucket. The reason why Queen & Slim gets so much heat is because there’s only one. … What’s happening is we’re still a part of a renaissance and there’s still only a few of us. And also what tends to happen is once there’s a few of us in the industry’s like, OK, great. You got Lena, Donald [Glover], Issa [Rae].
Lopez: Close the gates.
Waithe: Chadwick Boseman is cool. I felt it happen. I feel it happen. … It’s our mission to make sure we hold the door open because it’s easy for them to say that a few have gotten in, great. We cannot allow ourselves to get so enamored by our success that we forget all those that came before us. I don’t want it to be my legacy all the movies and TV shows I made, but how many people can I get their movie greenlit, get their TV show greenlit.
Lopez: I agree.