The Whipping Man | The Black Rep

whippingman 75Matthew Lopez has written an absorbing examination of this time and these men as its representatives.

 


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The Whipping Man seems slow at first, but then it creeps up on you until you are wholly absorbed in its story. Or at least that was my experience. I was busy with details like wondering how a guy could get his leg cut off, sleep 24 hours (after a long journey on which he rode his horse to death), wake up and take a shot of booze, and then engage in a detailed philosophical/theological discussion. But sometimes I’m too literal. Here, probability matters less than profundity, and The Whipping Man is full of meaning that goes beyond the feasibility of some of its events.

The plot centers on the heir to the DeLeon estate in Richmond, who falls through the door of his ruined home on a rainy night. (Really rainy. Mr. Weatherall, turn down the waterworks, please, ’cause you’re drowning out the actors. The opening clap of thunder is a nice touch, though.) The place has been looted and burned, and the wounded Confederate soldier collapses until he is roused by the family’s longtime retainer, Simon (Ron Himes), who nearly shoots Caleb DeLeon (Justin Ivan Brown) before he recognizes the dirty young man. Simon catches up Caleb on what all has happened in the past months since Caleb’s last visit, and then notices that Caleb has been shot in the leg and gangrene has set in. He wants Caleb to go to a hospital, but Caleb refuses for good reason. So Simon, who has spent time nursing soldiers in a field hospital, gets out the saw and, with the help of another recent arrival, John (Ronald L. Connor), performs the surgery.

While Caleb sleeps off the shock and pain of the amputation, we learn more about the two black men. John was raised by the DeLeons as a slave, but also as a playmate to Simon’s daughter, Sarah (unseen here), and Caleb himself. The two are close, but their relationship is clearly tense. John was a loafer and a troublemaker, and the only person who worked for Mr. DeLeon to be sent to “the whipping man.” Apparently, corporal punishment was administered in little house full of whips meant to discipline unruly slaves. Something happened during one of these incidents that turned John against Caleb, however, and more will be revealed about the “whipping man” as both real and metaphoric presence throughout the play.

What makes this Southern family and its slaves different from other Southern families and theirs is that they are Jews. The DeLeons’ religion, uncommon but not unknown in the Antebellum South, was adopted by their human property. Simon and John, though very recently freed, are observant. Caleb no longer practices, or so he says. Another thing that makes this date different from all other dates is that it is April 14, 1865, the eve of the assassination of the President. “Father Abraham,” a title fraught with meaning, is bestowed on the martyred Lincoln by Simon when he returns from town the following day with the news.

Simon wants to have a seder since Passover has begun, and John’s ability to “discover” and “borrow” other people’s property (he’s a looter) provides the needed supplies. The irony of people descended from slaves who were freed and led to their “promised land” by Moses owning people the same way their ancestors were owned is lost on no one. By the time the audience joins the group at the seder meal, much has been revealed that affects all three men in profound ways. And there is more to come.

Matthew Lopez has written an absorbing examination of this time and these men as its representatives. Ed Smith’s direction seemed static at first, but in one of those “aha” moments, I realized that this is the pace of the seder maintained throughout the whole play. It’s a remarkable piece of directing and beautifully acted by Himes, Brown, and Conner. The burned out house even includes a big chandelier, now hanging tipsily from a fragment of ceiling, a totem of the past. The design is by Tim Case and some Act II projections are by Mark Wilson, the lighting designer who colors glimpses of the sky with fire and ice, depending on the time of day, and contrasting it to the darkness within. Candles illuminate the interior, and they, too, have religious significance. Lou Bird’s costumes enhance the dandyish quality of the literate John as opposed to Simon’s plain looks and speech, and Robin Weatherall’s sound uses music in unexpected ways.

The Whipping Man isn’t like any show I’ve seen, and is well worth your time should you decide to go. It provides much to think through and talk about afterward. | Andrea Braun

The Whipping Man is at The Grandel Theatre through April 13. For tickets, you may link to Metrotix through the website at www.theblackrep.org


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