Among the many provocative questions Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man asks is, “Were there enough Jewish Negroes at the end of the Confederacy to form a minyan?” That is, a minimum of 10. The answer is yes, and that two of them are present in the ruined mansion of a Jewish slave-owning family five days after the surrender at Appomattox. There are more questions to be answered in the current production at Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre Company.
At the beginning of the action a seriously wounded gray-clad soldier, Caleb DeLeon (Daniel Berlingeri) stumbles through the battered door, screaming in agony. He is recognized by a faithful servant Simon (Alexander Thomas). The former master and former slave are co-religionists, but as the end of the war has brought Emancipation to the South, the relationship is now profoundly changed.
The U.S. Civil War has been dramatized so frequently, we are all attuned to the many signals Lopez’s script is sending us. If the mansion is now a gothic horror, filthy and barren, we know what happened without being told. Set designer David Arsenault, lighting designer Tyler M. Perry (with accents on bleak lanterns and candles), costumer Lisa Boquist and sound designer Lesley Greene (it’s a dark and stormy night) all make important contributions, especially in the first act. We are portentously reminded that action is taking place on April 14, a Friday, not only five days after the Confederacy’s defeat, but also the day of Lincoln’s assassination, which we can expect to be announced before the action runs its course. We will learn that it is also Passover.
We are 35 minutes into the action before we hear any reference to the characters’ Jewishness, which comes with the word “Torah.” Before getting into that we need to know more about the DeLeon household. Solid, paternal, take-charge Simon resembles a number of wise, unpatronizing black men as conceived by whites, such as Lucas Beauchamp in William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust.
Also surviving in the household is an ex-slave of contrasting personality, John (Darian Dauchan), a lithe, lying, stealing, boozing mischief-maker, given to witty wordplay as well as anachronisms. He calls poor whites “crackers.” The characterization dances dangerously close to stereotype, but director Jesse Bush and actor Dauchan prudently keep John’s fun restrained.
Caleb’s unseen father looms large in the men’s conversations. When Simon and John still suffered in pre-war bondage, he was a feared master, shared religion aside, in contrast to his son. Even though we know he has fled the scene in advance of Federal troops’ entry into Virginia, mentions of his name raise dread.
Tension rises in the first act from physical problems just as moral questions will drive the second. Caleb’s pronounced limp is diagnosed by Simon as a gangrenous wound. In facing the dilemma of amputation, Simon spells out to Caleb how the infection would eventually consume his entire body.
For reasons he will not reveal, Caleb dreads going to any hospital, and the only tool left in the residence is a saw. Remarkable, given slaves’ limited access to education, Simon knows just what to do, including the location of severed arteries to be stanched with rags. The agile John assists, with anodyne whiskey for external disinfection and internal comfort. As with the amputation in Gone with the Wind, our eyes are spared the worst horrors.
The second act begins with a flashback to a battle of previous weeks, in which Caleb can stand erect with his left foot, now bare, restored to its place. His plaintive voice cries out, “Know me!” Perhaps it is a conscious allusion to phrasing in the Passover Seder ritual. He also yearns for a woman named Sarah. It’s a common enough biblical name but also the name of Simon’s missing daughter. We are unsure whether there are many Sarahs.
In the second act we gain a better understanding of why playwright Lopez chose to have the DeLeon household and their slaves be Jewish. It is not his own tradition; in interview, Lopez speaks of himself as a Puerto Rican gentile. The conceit is literary rather than sociological or historical, although there were Jewish slaveholders who had their slaves practice the household faith, and members of the Confederate cabinet were Jewish. This means that masters and slaves were members of the same minority, persecuted faith in an otherwise monolithic and intolerant state. One might have expected this would bind them closer together than Christian masters of Christian slaves.
More importantly is the trope linking slaves with Children of Israel held in bondage in Egypt. The men sing the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible-based spiritual “Go Down Moses,” leading to the chorus, “Let my people go.”
The spiritual segues into the most curious sequence in The Whipping Man: the Passover Seder on the night of the Lincoln assassination, in which the three Jewish men, white and black, all participate. With the shortage of resources, a small, brick-like square of hardtack, soldier’s rations, serve as unleavened matzo, and uncooked collard greens take the place of bitter herbs. All the men participate in the questioning and answering on the theme of liberation, ending with the familiar “next year in Jerusalem.”
For Simon and John, of course, these words are all so much rhetoric because “Father Abraham” (Lincoln) has already emancipated them. And as they remind Caleb with almost schoolboy glee, the slaveholding Confederacy has been annihilated.
Then in a sharp reversal of tone we feel a groundswell of hidden pain, including the identity of the whipping man of the title, of the suppressed sins of father and son that the peculiar institution of slavery has visited upon fellow humans of the same confession.
Playwright Lopez is still only 35 and is known only for The Whipping Man. Different drafts of the play knocked around regional theaters for years before making it in New York City in early 2011. This season it has become the third most-produced new stage work in the United States, after David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People and Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park. This production at Ithaca’s 99-seat Kitchen Theatre shows why. Despite the curiosity of a Puerto Rican dramatizing Jewish ex-slaves, the drama brings the accessible visceral energy of a stage work written two or three generations ago, such as by Lillian Hellman (who certainly would have loved it).
The Whipping Man also gives us three enriching roles, starting with Daniel Berlingeri’s Caleb, wounded in body and in mind, and Darian Dauchan’s effervescent trickster John. But Alexander Thomas’ Simon carries the most weight and delivers the biggest speeches. We learn that he has suffered the most from slavery, but he is never bent or beaten—or subservient. It’s a show that packs a punch.
This production runs through Feb. 10. See Times Table for information.