As we approach the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War there are still so many unanswered questions from that era. Scholars and historians have written reams about this turbulent period of American life. The social and political trials and tribulations that occurred have been the source material for novels, plays, films and television miniseries for decades. So what more is there to learn? What aspects of this trying time have we not explored?
Matthew Lopez’s 2010 play The Whipping Man explores a relatively obscure and perhaps overlooked part of American Southern life; Southern Jewish slave owners. The story of the play begins on April 13, 1865 shortly after the end of the war, in Richmond Virginia. The characters are a young wounded Confederate soldier and his family’s two remaining slaves. The household was Jewish and the slaves were raised in the Jewish faith. The holiday of Passover is at hand. Simon, the elder slave, insists on preparing a Passover Seder: the Jewish ritual that commemorates the Exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Caleb, the young wounded Confederate soldier has doubts about his faith after having seen the horrors of war. John, the younger slave is obsessed with looting and drinking whiskey and has fantasies of leaving for a new life in New York. During the course of the play secrets are revealed and revelations are made by all the characters that dramatically alter the course of their lives.
The play raises a variety of issues and themes. The concepts of slavery and freedom are presented through the lens of the Torah (Jewish Bible), and the paradox and irony of Southern Jewish slave owners is explored in a deeply moving and personal way. This is a play about three very complicated and conflicted people brought together and torn apart by circumstance. This is a play about faith and family as well. The three men are indeed a family and share a bond that is ultimately destroyed by their deception, contradiction and loss. The Whipping Man is a powerful and compelling piece of storytelling that fully resonates in modern society. And it highlights a lesser known phenomenon of Civil War life in the South. The play opens January 30 and runs through February 16 at the Clarence Brown Carousel Theatre.