Here we are in the middle of Black History Month, and Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte schedules a play about Jews having a Passover Seder.
In Richmond, Virginia.
Right after the Civil War.
But wait a minute – two of the Jews are former slaves. What’s going on here, exactly?
“The Whipping Man,” Matthew Lopez’s 2009 drama, drops us down in a manor house ruined by neglect and the Union Army.
Caleb, son of its vanished owner, has come back with a leg full of gangrene and a mind empty of plans. He meets Simon, an elderly former slave who stayed on the property through the war, and John, a resourceful younger slave who’s making plans to go.
They eat together. They pray together. They form a makeshift family, though one almost certainly destined to be dysfunctional.
“We never think about the day after a big event,” says director Chip Decker. “We always focus on the event. This play takes place right after Lincoln has been killed, and what happens now? Yesterday, you were a slave. Today, you’re a free man who has nothing. Where do you go?”
A flight of pure imagination
Authors often hear “Write what you know,” but Lopez ran in the other direction. He’s neither Jewish nor Southern nor an expert in U.S. history.
He learned Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated during the Passover season of 1865 and began to wonder about Jewish slave owners. (Judah Benjamin, the Confederacy’s Secretary of State at the end of the war, was one of them.)
Lopez knew small farms were the rule, plantations the exception, in the antebellum South. So he set the play on one such property, where slaves could be field hands but were likely to be servants or cooks. The unseen title character represents a cruel kind of detached punishment, a self-employed figure willing to discipline slaves when their owners lacked the inclination.
“Whipping Man” contains a series of surprises, carefully timed to explode in the second act in an emotional fireworks display. But the scene that may knock you back comes in the first act, when the men collaborate, Caleb unwillingly, in the removal of his rotten leg. (That’s not a spoiler. And believe me, you’ll want to be prepared.)
The winter’s hottest play
Over the last 18 months, “Whipping Man” has become one of the most-produced dramas in America: Lopez’s website mentions a dozen versions opening from January to April of this year.
ATC has cast two regulars, Brett Gentile and Jeremy DeCarlos, as Caleb and John. Dignified, peacekeeping Simon is played by John W. Price.
The troupe regularly does plays with black themes during Black History Month, such as “Cuttin’ Up” and “Black Pearl Sings.” (Those aren’t limited to February runs, as “Clybourne Park” showed last April.) But the company doesn’t neglect the second adjective, either: These are history plays.
“ ‘Whipping Man’ puts a whole different spin on history,” says Decker. “Simon talks about seeing Lincoln walking down the street with people wanting to touch him, as if he were a rock star. He was an even more powerful force that way, I think, than Barack Obama when he got elected in 2008.”
Decker says Actor’s Theatre has a built-in audience for all shows but markets each toward specific groups that might be interested.
“We’re not doing a February show to attract a one-time audience,” he says. “Nothing suits me better than to have African-Americans come back to see four pasty white girls in ‘The Marvelous Wonderettes.’
“We take pride in building trust. We’ve done stories about women and Jews and white guys, and we think they’re for everybody.”