“The Whipping Man” a potboiler about slavery and a Jewish family in 1860s Richmond
By Lucy Komisar
This is an unlikely melodramatic potboiler about American slavery and a Jewish family in Richmond, Va., that turned its slaves into believers. It’s an unlikely premise in spite of historical documentation, but you no sooner get to the point of accepting one unlikely premise, than playwright Matthew Lopez throws you another. The play is full of action and mystery, secrets and surprises, but is somehow unsatisfying.
The essential story is that the slave-holding DeLeon family was Jewish and they converted their slaves to the religion. We must take it on faith that this happened.
It’s 1865 and General Lee has surrendered at Appomattox. Caleb (Jay Wilkison) is a confederate soldier who drags himself back to the family mansion – now blackened and ruined by fire — with a bullet in his leg. His horse has died on arrival. First mystery: why didn’t he get medical care when he was wounded?
The loyal black servant Simon (the very strong André Braugher) is soon joined by the bitter John (played with depth of feeling by André Holland). The power relations change. Simon, who is quite generous under the circumstances, says to Caleb, “All these things you’re telling me to do you need to be asking.”
Simon saves Caleb’s life by cutting off his gangrenous leg. It’s a rather gruesome moment. John helps hold the patient down. And slowly, the play’s ironies are revealed.
John is methodically looting deserted houses, carrying back chairs and china, a couple of eggs, whiskey (useful for the leg amputation). Lopez portrays him as quite an unusual slave: he ran an underground book distribution that father DeLeon stopped. Now he just wants to go to New York. (An early black intellectual?) Holland is wry and comical in his cynicism.
Simon is waiting for the return of his wife and daughter who departed in the midst of the conflict while he was in hiding. Dressed in the servant’s uniform striped shirt and vest, he wants to stay and continue to work for the family. He doesn’t see much economic alternative.
As a black Jew, Simon presides over Sabbath blessings, lighting candles and saying a prayer over the meal. Now it’s April, and Simon wants to make a Passover dinner, which of course celebrates the Israelites flight to freedom from Egyptian slavery. As he can’t read, he says the words from memory.
John gripes about the celebration of freeing Jewish slaves in the context of the blacks’ experience. But Simon transposes Father Abraham to Abraham Lincoln, who has just been shot. He is described as “the American Moses” who “led us from bondage but was not able to enter the promised land.”
So John agrees, “Let’s celebrate the freeing of the slaves,” and as befits an underground book distributor, but really, straining credulity, “Maybe I’ll write a book like Frederick Douglas.”
When he inquires, “Were we Jews or slaves, children of Israel or heathen?” Simon replies, “We were treated better than other slaves.” And Caleb says his father had slaves whipped only when necessary. Whew!
It turns out John is bitter because, though the boys were raised almost as brothers, when DeLeon took him to “the whipping man” (early outsourcing) for some infraction, Caleb took the whip and got in some licks of his own. But Caleb like his father and other Southern whites had conflicted relations with blacks, and that involves a secret which makes him concerned about Simon’s family.
The staging by Doug Hughes is excellent. The set by Jean Lee Beatty is beautifully naturalistic and eerie. Braugher as Simon is painfully moving, and Holland displays the right level of anger and emotion as John. Jay Wilkison doesn’t have much presence as Caleb. The real problem with the play is that it is hokey, a made-for-TV movie, piling one dramatic action on top of another in a way that presents only a caricature of the social and psychological conflicts and relations of the time.
“The Whipping Man.” Written by Matthew Lopez; directed by Doug Hughes. Manhattan Theatre Club Stage 1 at City Center, 131 West 55th Street, New York, NY. 212-581-1212; Opened Feb 1, 2011; closes Apr 10, 2011.