Keith Mascoll, Johnny Lee Davenport, Jesse Hinson
New Rep’s current production of “The Whipping Man” by Matthew Lopez is a stunning piece of creative theater. It originated way off Broadway in 2006 at Luna Stage in New Jersey, making its New York debut in 2010. The concept is a strikingly original one. The time is 1865, immediately after the April 9th surrender of General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, concurrent with the celebration of the Jewish holiday of Passover, in which the Exodus of liberation from bondage is commemorated. The place is Richmond, Virginia, the site of a Jewish-owned formerly grand home, now in disarray. The son of the owners of the home (who have fled) arrives severely wounded, still in his (Confederate) uniform, to find two of the family’s slaves left behind. This ownership of slaves by Jewish masters is a little-known fact of Southern life, a reality in about a quarter of Jewish homes. Despite the specific Biblical prohibition of enslavement by Jews of their own people, the slaves in their homes who embraced Judaism remained in bondage. Partly due to their being viewed, not as human beings but as property, and acceptance of slavery as a “necessary” element of the Southern economy, this contradiction continued to exist until the end of the Civil War. It was the legacy of the Founding Fathers who compromised on the subject of slavery in order to establish what would become a very imperfect union. As another play, the musical “1776”, quoted John Adams about the future of a country that did not abolish slavery from the start, “Does anybody see what I see?”. That unresolved issue was to haunt the newly formed country then, and persists today. The huge question that remained after the war had ended, which is what this play addresses, was precisely this: with emancipation as a reality, just where do we go from here?
This production begins with some terrific technical elements, from the deconstructed Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland, to the realistic Sound Design and Original Music by Dewey Dellay (rain, wind, thunder, and a lot of creaking), to the Lighting Design by Scott Pinkney (atmospheric lightning and impressive use of candlelight) and the appropriate Costume Design by Molly Trainer. In stumbles the injured Caleb (Jesse Hinson) through the grand doorway (still intact, and curiously with no visible mezuzah which one would expect in an observant Jewish home), to be greeted first by the faithful elderly slave Simon (Johnny Lee Davenport), and subsequently by the far less faithful slave who was Caleb’s boyhood companion (though of course not friend), John (Keith Mascoll). Before long the question of “where do we go from here” becomes more and more apparent from the different visions of the present and future as seen by each. Whereas the formerly privileged Caleb envisions life “like it was before”, Simon observes that “it will not be like before”. When Caleb orders Simon to “get me some water”, the silent pause and withering look Simon gives him speaks volumes, and when he observes that his departed mother told Simon to take care of him if he returned, Simon answers that “she asked me to take care of you”. Simon also tells the younger John: “you living in this world now, not serving in it…(there is) more than one way you can be a slave”, and that these are the choices that make the kind of free man one will be. To Caleb whose wartime experiences have caused him to lose his faith, he declares that you “lose faith not from asking questions, but from not asking questions”. And it is Simon who prepares to celebrate the Passover seder, even as he learns of Lincoln’s assassination, with the treasured haggadah in hand, and its story of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt, given to him by Caleb’s grandfather long ago.
The irony of the converted former slave conducting the seder service despite the initial objections of his previous master is at the center of the work. Clearly, Simon sees the world they are beginning much more clearly than Caleb, and the parallels between their new world and the ancient lot of the Hebrews are extraordinarily moving. During the course of the service some significant (but, it must be said, easily anticipated) revelations occur, but the plot points are not as crucial as the conflicting underlying tectonic shifts among this trio of fine actors. As masterfully directed by Benny Sato Ambush, the three of them (especially Davenport, whose Simon towers over the others) are at the top of their game. Despite some very minor flaws in the writing, this is a thoughtful and thought-provoking creation.
Coming as it does so soon after New Rep’s successful run of their prior production of “Imagining Madoff” about the infamous con man who defrauded many of his fellow Jews and their philanthropic foundations, “The Whipping Man” adds another moral question difficult to answer. As this work ends with two of the characters facing their sudden forced interdependence despite their sins, one could be forgiven for feeling once again a twinge of cultural guilt. How this play portrays the ethical dilemmas then (and, implicitly, now) is what makes this outstanding work so different from all other plays. One might ask the playwright, in the words of yet another musical about the oppressed, “Please, sir, may we have some more”?