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The Washington Post

‘Whipping Man’: A Civil War seder as the South crumbles

By Peter Marks, Published: April 24

The characters of Matthew Lopez’s engrossing if soberly conventional Civil War drama, “The Whipping Man,” gather around a makeshift seder table in the ruins of a stately Richmond homestead to remember Moses’s deliverance of his people from enslavement by the pharaoh.“Let my people go!” sings the oldest and most devout of them, the mournful Simon, played with dignified self-possession by the always effective David Emerson Toney. The startling aspect of this Passover meal is not that such a tradition could survive in the charred remains of the capital of the vanquished Confederacy, but that two of the celebrants at the table are former slaves of the third.

With its excessive diligence in tying up all of its narrative threads and the assertive degree to which it unfolds its ironies — such as the fact that Jews could have been the owners of slaves who were raised with their religion — “The Whipping Man” comes across as the work of someone who’s still feeling his way as a writer. That it’s so consciously well-made means it satisfies our visceral craving for dramatic tidiness, even if it conforms more readily to the contemporary mandates of TV than the stage.Clearly, though, Lopez knows how to spin a good yarn, so it’s likely you’ll come away from “The Whipping Man” sated by its intensity and muscular plot mechanics. The trio of actors — Toney, Mark Hairston and Alexander Strain — are smoothly guided by director Jennifer L. Nelson, who receives evocative assistance at Theater J from set designer Daniel Conway and the rest of her capable team.

It’s April 1865 on the spread of the DeLeon clan, a proud family of Virginia Jews who, like all of their Gentile and Jewish neighbors, owned slaves and sent sons off to fight for the rebel cause. After Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, one of them, Strain’s Caleb DeLeon, has returned home, nursing a gangrenous leg wound, to find his family gone and house abandoned, except for Simon and another ex-slave, Hairston’s John, who spends his days scavenging homes for heirlooms that fleeing families left behind.The dramatic possibilities seem bountiful with characters whose legal connections change faster than their psychic bonds can keep up with. (Other theaters think so, too, as demonstrated by the concurrent production at Baltimore’s CenterStage.) “How is this our problem anymore?” the embittered John says to Simon, as they contemplate a ghastly, primitive excision of Caleb’s festering leg. (The consult over the proposed surgery is a squirm-inducer.) The responsibilities that each of these men — tied by history, emotion and religion — bear for the others become the animating issues of “The Whipping Man,” as the matrix of the relationships on Caleb’s slave-holding estate are laid out.The play’s toxic mixture of social dominance, affection and submission is reminiscent of Athol Fugard’s resonant apartheid play, “Master Harold and the Boys,” the story of the charged friendship between a white student and two of his family’s black servants. Perhaps the violent upheaval that sets off the events of Lopez’s tale does not allow the characters to reveal themselves with quite the level of humor or subtlety evident in Fugard’s. Still, the abrupt societal realignment taking hold as the piece unfolds gives Lopez’s characters a lot to chew on.I can see how making the slaveholders Jewish adds a unique element to “The Whipping Man”: The lessons of Passover seem to have been lost on the DeLeons. (Although Toney’s Simon notes that the family was far more humane than most.) And while I can’t dispute the historical basis for Lopez’s choice, I wonder if the harsh light in which the drama bathes the DeLeons — with no countervailing acknowledgment of the anti-Semitism of the time — is the treatment that this fictional family deserves.Playing the battered scion of a Southern landowning clan, the dashing Strain manages to temper Caleb’s entitlement with a needed trace of vulnerability. He and the puckishly likable Hairston run intriguingly with the notion that underlying the antipathy between their characters is a comprehension that they are more alike than different. Toney successfully fulfills Simon’s more sympathetic mission, as a man pure of soul on whom the tragic ramifications of slavery are unceremoniously dumped.Through tattered garments and faded uniforms, costume designer Ivania Stack places the ravages of the war in vivid, sartorial terms, and Matthew M. Nielson’s sound design builds old-fashioned tension with the conjuring of a driving rainstorm. For this murky moment of American transition, lighting designer Nancy Schertler contributes a sense of perpetual night, which gives additional character to Conway’s faded set, one that easily evokes a South in ruins.Secret by secret, Lopez doles out the information his characters conceal, a process that gives “The Whipping Man” its noticeable by-the-book feel. It also keeps you curious about what comes next, and like the turning point in history it presents, that’s of no small consequence.

DC Theatre Scene

The Whipping Man at Theater J
April 25, 2012 By Debbie Jackson Leave a Comment

There’s a reason why The Whipping Man is becoming one of the most produced plays around — its premise of a Passover Seder among newly freed slaves raised as Jews is mind-blowing, and with the right casting and directing, the play spins old concepts in stunningly creative new ways.  The production at Theater J hits all the marks and then some.

The trio of actors all bring special gifts to bear witness, led by David Emerson Toney as Simon, the old faithful servant of master Leon, who carries the years of slavery on his back without allowing the wretched condition to break his soul.  Simon tends to young master Caleb, played with wonderful nuances by Alexander Strain, a Confederate soldier who has broken with his regiment and returned home to heal from an infectious gunshot wound.

Mark Hairston is the spirited John who also carries wounds from the brutality of slavery with evidence of internal scarring, hinting at how festering unseen wounds can perpetrate through generations.  All three actors give masterful performances under the skillful direction of Jennifer Nelson who channels history like an old soul.

The play develops such ideas of loyal Confederate Jews who accepted slavery and owned slaves, passing on the Jewish faith, legacy and rituals to their slaves, who identified with the Old Testament stories of the Children of Israel in bondage struggling for freedom.

The issues which, on the surface seem dizzyingly bizarre, are played out with natural grace and rigor in the relationships between the three seen characters as well as pivotal characters who are only referenced.  The brilliant script brings all of the characters to bear witness– all are fleshed out, plausible and real.  At one point, Simon asks John “Do you know your story?”  And that’s the crucial issue — secrets are revealed and the characters learn about themselves and each other in those several days in mid-April, 1865 that just happened to fall on Passover.

There’s more than one festering wound in the production, and alcohol has a plum role as a makeshift antiseptic and anesthetic.  And in case it wasn’t clear, the script has Simon remark about things that “muddle the mind,” specifically John‘s reliance on alcohol to numb his mental anguish.

Hairston’s portrayal of John, the brash reactionary, hits all the right tones in his almost thuggish disregard for anything that doesn’t propel him or his life quest—to read and study and be accepted as a scholar.  As a youth, John was threatened to act right or he’d be punished by the “whipping man,” which held him in check to his teenage years.  But like a young bucking bronco, his time under the lash was inevitable, which left scars on his emotional psyche that impacted every decision he’s made since.  Hairston portrays aspects of the emotional desecrating legacy from slavery, and the script masterfully interweaves John’s festering anger with Simon’s unshakeable faith.

When Toney as Simon passionately delivers his Passover prayer and sings the old slave song ‘Go Down Moses,’ complete with fervent exhortations about Abraham, he is the absolute embodiment of strength and courage.  As secrets are uncovered in the second act, and the full extent of his survival is revealed, well, it’s a breathtaking delivery that might take a minute to sink in after the curtain call.  It’s that good.

The set by the reliable Daniel Conway relays glimpses of the old majestic architectural design of the south with authentic artwork on the wallpaper and sculpted patches of ceiling.  The somber backdrop of burnt up, plundered Richmond and ripped and ragged furniture indicate that those glory days are long gone.  Sound and light design by Matthew M. Nielson and Nancy Schertler respectively, also set the somber tones and shadows of tumultuous civil war years.  Segments of original music also by Nielson contain a fusion of folk tones steeped in the roots of the Black experience with remarkable results.

Baltimore’s CenterStage concurrent production, directed by new Artistic Director Kwamei Kwei-Armah, has patrons hustling up and down I-95 to marvel at different artistic choices of this powerful script.  Once is not enough to witness untold glimpses of history twisting and turning in capable hands.

In his usual fashion, Theater J’s Artistic Director Ari Roth  is committed to encouraging community dialogue to help grapple with the poignant issues presented  with post-performance talkbacks, panels about shared cultural legacies, even what promises to be a fascinating session on the psychoanalytic perspective.

This stellar production of The Whipping Man shows characters dealing with slavery’s brutality and foreshadows its long-reaching psychosocial aftermath while portraying the intense faith that continues to sustain a nation still lurching towards freedom for all.

DC Metro Theater Arts

‘The Whipping Man’ at Theater J by Joel Markowitz
April 23, 2012   Joel Markowitz   Reviews

Theater J’s powerful and sizzling production of Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man, directed with sensitivity and heart by Jennifer L. Nelson, is a theatrical experience you will never forget. I left the theatre emotionally drained and at the same time elated that I had witnessed three moving performances by three exceptional actors – Alexander Strain, David Emerson Toney, and Mark Hairston. It’s the ‘Must See’ of the DC theater season.

And having this masterpiece performed in The DCJCC’s Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater with a large Jewish audience – including myself – this The Whipping Man adds another level of meaning and ‘Tam” (Hebrew for ‘flavor’) for me that I had not felt in other productions of the show I had seen elsewhere.

Since I recently celebrated Passover, this powerful play reminded me that slavery and the freedom granted to the slaves in the United States and and Egypt shared similar evils, tribulations, and lessons. And as three men conduct a Passover Seder – I was reminded – as I am every year when non-Jewish friends are invited to my and my friends’ Seders – that we are all brothers fighting for the same causes: justice, acceptance, and understanding, and that the fight, unfortunately, still goes on.

It’s powerful stuff and The Whipping Man provides it in buckets.

Caleb DeLeon (Alexander Strain) returns home to Richmond after serving in the Confederate Army after General Robert E. Lee has surrendered. He finds his home in shambles and has a horrible leg injury. His family has left and he doesn’t know why. Still living in what is now a ‘shell’ of his home is Simon (David Emerson Toney), who raised him, and John (Mark Hairston), a slave who is the same age as Caleb, who brings home a slew of items and food that he has looted from several plantations.

David Emerson Toney (Simon) and Mark Hairston (John). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Suffice to say that there are many twists and turns and family skeletons and secrets are revealed – and we learn about their experiences with The Whipping Man, but I will not reveal any of these  because I want you to experience them in the theatre. What I will give away is that Lopez has written a brilliant script – it’s a roller coaster of emotions – and Nelson’s firm hand humanizes these characters – all three raised as Jews – and we feel for them and empathize with them, and we get angry at them. We learn that there are many wounds that still need healing, and we witness new wounds that are opened and hope that these wounds will also heal.

Which brings us to The Seder. The Hebrew word Seder means ‘order’ and the order in these three characters’ lives has been thrown into chaos and disorder by war, racial injustice and personal issues that still eat away at the core of these three men’s lives. But it is the beauty (I still have ‘chills’ that I experienced during the Seder scene) and pride of watching Caleb, John, and Simon leave the hurt behind and unite as one as holiday candles are lit, as they read from the Haggadah about the Exodus from Egypt, chant the Kiddush (Sanctification), recite prayers, and read from the Book of Exodus about the freedom that their ancestors were granted as they left Egypt. It immediately forces them to evaluate their newly-granted freedom signed by ‘Father Abraham’ – President Abraham Lincoln – who has just been assassinated.

What can you say about these amazing performances? Alexander Strain’s cries of pain and desperation and regret are so real. Mark Hairston’s performance  is filled with frustration and fear and at times, he is very funny. David Emerson Toney burns up the stage with his anger, and caring and frustration, and when he sings the spiritual “Go Down Moses” at The Seder with his gorgeous and thunderous Paul Robeson-like voice, he glows. It’s not only a spine-tingling moment, but it’s also earth-shaking. I will never forget it.

Lopez’s script is also filled with humor and many laughs (for me there were many ‘nervous’ laughs), and Strain, Hairston and Toney have great comic timing, and all their funny lines land.

A special congrats to Scenic Designer Dan Conway who creates a rundown Southern house with a backdrop with a effective photograph on it, a loveseat, a wooden floor, a chandelier, and a large door with broken wooden slats. Matthew Nielson provides crisp and clear sound and special effects including rain falling and soldiers marching. Nancy Schertler’s lighting sets the different moods and emotions of the show perfectly, while Ivania Stack’s provides simple but effective costumes.

The Whipping Man is theatre at its best. With performances that will move you, make you laugh, shudder and cry, do not pass over the opportunity to see this monumental work given a first-rate production by the courageous Theater J.