BWW Reviews: THE WHIPPING MAN - Why Is This Night Different?
It is no accident that when slavery was legal in America, slaves would sing songs about Moses bringing the Jews out from bondage in Egypt. But one must wonder how Jews in the South felt hearing those songs--especially those Jews who owned slaves. Did they appreciate the irony? Did they find some way to justify enslaving others the way they themselves had once been enslaved? And did they ever think that just as the Biblical Egyptians suffered devastating plagues for their stubbornness and pride, the South would suffer loss and devastation as well?
It is impossible, of course, for people today to understand the mindset of 150 years ago, but Matthew Lopez's gripping new play, The Whipping Man, currently running at Manhattan Theater Club, certainly paints a believable portrait of what it may well have been like. In the deceptively simple play, a Jewish Confederate soldier returns to his family's ruined Richmond, Virginia home (chillingly recreated by John Lee Beatty's burnt-out Southern Gothic set) to rebuild his life just as the Civil War ends. Two of his former slaves remain at the house (for two different reasons), and the three struggle to figure out their new roles in a new world without slavery. With no masters and no slaves, they soon realize, they are all equally saddled with the burden of choice, and must all take responsibility for their own actions for the first time.
If this were all The Whipping Man were about, it would be interesting enough, but Lopez adds one more intriguing layer to his story: The newly freed slaves are, like their former masters, also Jewish, and as the end of the Civil War coincided with the first night of Passover in 1865, the story of the Exodus from Egypt has even more immediacy than it would on any other night. As the ad-hoc family reclines around the table in the ancient tradition, the world around them is shifting both quietly and fiercely: Last year, they were slaves; this year, they are free men. This year in Richmond; next year, God only knows.
Alternately humorous, harrowing and consistently powerful, The Whipping Man shows great promise from young Lopez, who has a lyrical gift with language. Focusing on the three distinct characters, he creates three vivid human beings--no saints or martyrs, no villains or monsters, just flawed individuals who try to do what they feel is right. Quite wisely, Lopez raises more questions than he answers in the play, making the play unsettling, but wonderfully thought-provoking. If the play's twists and turns are rather predictable, they don't detract from its power and emotion.
As Simon, the erstwhile senior house slave, Andre Braugher gives a powerhouse performance of restrained rage and dignity against all odds, conveying equal measures of grace and pride--even when performing impromptu surgery. Simon's pain has toughened him to the cruelties of the world, but left him with a deep sense of morality that has come to define him. As the younger, more impetuous John, Andre Holland is the exact opposite: a cannon ready to explode at any moment, angry and raw as an exposed nerve. Jay Wilkison, as the emotionally and physically crippled slaveowner, gives his character unexpected depth and poignancy, finding the humanity in what a lesser actor could easily make a cliche.
Beatty's set is as much a character in the play as the three men, and combined with Ben Stanton's moody lighting, conveys the ruin of the Old South in vivid detail. (The bombed-out house is an obvious metaphor, but an effective one.) Doug Hughes' direction finds a dark, even twisted humor in the play's events, forcing us to laugh (sometimes in horror) at the tragedy of slavery and the devastation of war...and making the drama that much deeper.
The Whipping Man runs through April 10 at Manhattan Theater Club.