BWW Reviews: 'The Whipping Man' Redefines Slavery at the Stiemke Studio
What can be defined as slavery? In multiple ways, slavery continually exists and humans can all be slaves to someone or something. At the Stiemke Studio this past February weekend, The Milwaukee Rep opened The Whipping Man. The 2006 award-winning Off Broadway play written by Matthew Lopez returns three men, the owner's son and two of his slaves, to their family homestead in a complex and riveting American Civil War drama set a few days before the assassination of President Lincoln.
Associate Artistic Director Brent Hazelton culled inspiration from his college history major to direct the play with a compelling vision that actor Ro Boddie described before the performance, "With a focus on the relationships [in the play] and the spaces between the actors on stage."
With three actors placed in a fire ravaged and looted Virginia mansion in the devastated city of Richmond, this emotional and physical space defines the action in the tragedy naming inhumanity on multiple scales. Sound Designer Barry G. Funderburg creates thunderstorms, a drenching rain, memories of slaves in chains and the remnants of Civil War battles to haunt the evocative narrative Lopez wrote. A disturbing yet truthful story undertaken by Caleb DeLeon, Simon and John who remain in the house long after everyone has left for safety elsewhere.
Josh Landay recreates the white Jewish Confederate soldier Caleb who can barely crawl to his house, his one leg creeping from foot to knee with black gangrene when he received a bullet wound. On Caleb's return, a faithful older servant Simon helps him the only way he knows played by the magnetic James Craven, who asserts his seniority and wisdom to Caleb and a younger slave, the flashy and impetuous John. A role carried with flair by the dashing Boddie. While Landay debuted at The Rep in the season opening Ragtime, Craven and Boddie develop their debuts with impeccable and impressive acting credentials that excel in this production.
The caveat in Lopez's Civil War legacy becomes these three men all living in the same house, while Master and Slaves, practiced the Jewish faith. And in the second act, the trio pieces together a Seder, a celebratory meal dedicated to remembering the Passover, or when the Jews were released from the bondage after the plagues descended on the Egyptians and their royalty.
Within the performance's multicultural context the audience experiences the tragedy of slavery seen through the existence of time. Each of the three men attempt to define where their home is or will be, what their freedom means and how the existence of God during these tumultuous times influences their future decisions. As Caleb questions the absence of God during one of the particularly horrendous Civil War campaigns, he recalls, "This was beyond suffering. One must have humanity to have suffering. There is no humanity here."
Indeed, these three men wrestle with these questions, asking them of God and each other reflects a tenet of the Jewish faith because Simon believes, "We are required [as Jews] to ask God questions. You lose your faith by not asking questions."
When the audience watches this trio move about the spaces, and connect to each other, their lives unravel into loose ends, similar to those found on the bullwhips used to cruelly punish and scar slaves, and stings the conscious. The steady downpour never ends during this production, a contrast to the Red Sea that parted for the escaping Jews to swallow and drown the Egyptian soldiers, saving them from the army's wrath. Caleb, John and Simon must simultaneously forge a new path by themselves to life, freedom and whatever faith remains in their heart. Questions the audience will wrestle with after the performance, and well into the week ahead. What could they be slaves to and how do they escape, perhaps in emotional chains to alcohol, drugs, fame, wealth or work?
And to further question these men, they were only discussing the freedom of men instead of any women. In 1865, women could not vote, were rarely formally educated, the first Bachelor Degree available in 1861 at Maryland's Notre Dame College, and Jewish women still struggle with being permitted to study the Torah and Talmud as equals to men. Only seeing any parity in religious training beginning in the middle of the 20th century. So slavery extends to gender and perhaps sexual orientation, even as women currently own a mere one percent of the property in the world. Similar to slaves, women were once considered property and still are in many areas of the world.