Review: The Whipping Man

[by David Wallace]

The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez, directed by Meredith McDonough, is now playing at Actors Theatre of Louisville. It is an impressive blend of Judaism, slavery and the agony of freedom in post-Civil War Richmond, VA, which poses more questions than it is able to answer, which is not an altogether bad thing.

The play takes place in the April days just after Lee has surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, VA, to end the Civil War. Simon, played by Michael Genet, and John, played by Biko Eisen-Martin, were slaves who have just been liberated. Caleb, played by Frankie J. Alvarez, is their former master’s son and a Confederate soldier.

Caleb and his family are Jews, and their slaves were allowed to participate in the observances and considered themselves Jews.

Simon is “taking care” of the ruined family mansion. The younger John is out looting and sparring with the Whipping Man, the designated slave beater for the Richmond community.

Caleb, wounded, perhaps at the siege of Petersburg, staggers into the family mansion and collapses on the floor. Simon, though no longer a slave, elects to take care of the fallen warrior. As it turns out, taking care of him involves an amputation. With whiskey both as an antiseptic and a soporific drug, a saw and John’s assistance to keep Caleb from struggling, the leg comes off. As the first act ends, plans are being made for a Passover Seder while Caleb and John decide to keep a disturbing secret from Simon.

The progression of the Seder and the revelation of the secret carry the second act. The Seder is an amazing mixture of gospel music, improvisation and the reading of the Haggadah, the written map for the service. In the end, when the secret is revealed, John and Caleb are bound together in an unholy alliance like, as Simon puts it, “two peas in a pod,” while the elder former slave sets out on a new quest forced upon him by the revelation.

Genet, as Simon, carries this play, particularly in the second act. He sings “Go Down, Moses” and is the personification of rage and agony when the Passover Seder unravels. Alvarez and Eisen-Martin are worthy counterparts to Genet and in the end are left to pursue a strangely symbiotic future.

In preparing for the production, University of Louisville retired History Pro-fessor Lee Shai Weissbach served as historical consultant for the Actors Theatre company, ensuring both the historical and Judaic facts were accurately portrayed. In addition, Marsha Roth hosted a Seder for the performers so they would have a good understanding of the ritual.

This is a first-rate play, which raises questions concerning the responsibility that comes with freedom and the fascinating interaction between African-American slavery and the Jews’ exodus from ancient Egypt. In the process there are secrets revealed which uncover the intimate connection between slave and master in the antebellum South.

The only possible criticism of this wonderful play is that the first act is lengthy and meanders at times, but even to mention this is like calling the expression on the face of Mona Lisa a smirk instead of a smile. This is an exhausting journey that forces you to exercise your brain, which is what all profound plays do.

Run, don’t walk, to see this play. It will be remembered long after it closes on February 2.

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