Wednesday, April 01, 2015

The Whipping Man

Photo by Barry Wisdom
Whoever thought a guy named Lopez would write such a gripping play about black Jews in the South at the end of the Civil War? But playwright Matthew Lopez has delivered an unforgettable drama now on the Sacramento Theatre Company’s Pollock stage, under the direction of Buddy Butler.

The notion that there were a number of Jewish families living in the South during the Civil War is perhaps not surprising — though we rarely hear of them as a group apart from everyone else — so it is also not surprising that some of their slaves, particularly those raised from childhood with Jewish traditions, would have converted to Judaism, or that spirituals like “Go Down, Moses” would be an integral part of a Passover Seder.

The play covers three days in April 1865. Gen. Robert E. Lee has surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and young Caleb DeLeon (Sean Patrick Nill), wounded and barely able to drag his gangrenous leg, has returned to the family estate, to find the place in ruins.

His father and the rest of the family (including the now-emancipated slaves) have taken shelter elsewhere until it is safe to return to Richmond, Va. The house is being watched by former slaves Simon (Michael J. Asberry), and the younger John (Anthony Simone).

Simon, who has obviously been with the family for many years, is devoted to them and to keeping the house safe from looters, while the opportunistic John is thrilled to be looting the nearby mansions for little luxuries like liquor, candles, silverware and a mattress and rug that will help them to survive until things settle down and the family returns.

There is an uneasy reunion of the former slave and former master, as Caleb falls into his old habit of ordering the older man about. Simon reminds him that given his emancipated status, the boy should make requests rather than issuing orders. It takes a bit for this shift in relationships to sink in.

The rich are now poor, and the slaves are now free. Caleb has lost his faith, while Simon and John continue to believe and practice their adopted religion. Discussions of faith and religion take prominence as the three men try to make sense of this new, uncertain world.

“Were we Jews or were we slaves?” John wonders aloud to Caleb, recalling the years before the war.
“Were we the children of Israel or we just the heathen that were round about you? Because we couldn’t be both, that was clear. And now you say you’ve given up praying just as easily as that.”

It is clear that Caleb’s leg must be removed to save his life, but the former soldier refuses to go to the hospital, so Simon, with some little medical experience, assisted by John, performs the deed.

Fortunately for the audience, there is a convenient blackout to cover Caleb’s screams and when the lights come up again, the surgery is over and Caleb is lying comatose in bed.

As the two-hour play moves forward, tempers grow short, old wounds are aired, long-buried secrets are revealed and all comes to a head during a Passover Seder.

One could not ask for a better cast. Asberry imbues Simon with a quiet dignity in the face of the horror around him, and a hope that on his return, his former master will keep his promise to give him money so that he and his family can get their own little house.

His speech when he learns of President Lincoln’s assassination, given with tears running down his face, had many in the audience crying with him. He also sings bits of spirituals in several spots, displaying a deep, rich voice that left the audiences wanting more.

Nill gives a notable performance, and manages to handle the task of being bed-ridden and comatose for a long part of the action, though he is given the opportunity to express himself on two good legs in a flash-back scene.

Simone’s John is a cynical character who has a sense of style in the new duds he liberates from deserted mansions, and he has a devil-may-care attitude, until topics turn more serious and he shares his memories of “the whipping man,” to whom the father would take his slaves when they needed to be disciplined.

His character confronts reality when he finally understands that his feelings about the DeLeon family may have been mistaken.

This is a powerful play that not only examines a little-known chapter of Southern history, especially in the post-Civil War era, but also raises questions about race, religion and responsibility.

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