The finest theater experience makes us think, feel and debate. We gain some new insights into ourselves and others, and maybe learn a new fact or two. Such a trifecta is rarely attained, and when it is, we should notice with our feet. Matthew Lopez’s “The Whipping Man,” currently in its Boston premiere run at the New Rep Theatre in Watertown, is just such a play. In a nutshell, the 2006 Obie Award-winning period drama is set in Richmond, Virginia during the crucial month of April 1865, as three historical events intersected: the end of the Civil War and American institutionalized slavery; the assassination of Abraham Lincoln; and Passover, which began the day after Robert E. Lee’s surrender.
The setting is the half destroyed mansion of the Jewish DeLeon family. The characters include Caleb DeLeon, the injured Confederate soldier who has returned to the family home, and Simon and John, two newly freed DeLeon slaves, who had been converted to Judaism and raised as Jews by Caleb’s father.
Over the course of two days, the three address and try to make sense of their pasts as they reconstruct their futures against the backdrop of a suddenly reordered world. They revisit bitter traumas, reveal devastating secrets and warily navigate the waters of “freedom.” The play closes as the three conduct a makeshift seder, insisted upon and led by Simon.
“This year we are slaves, next year we may be free,” Simon recites before singing a few verses of “Go Down, Moses.” The stirring weight of the African American spiritual that celebrates the same hopes and dreams shared by the Israelites as they commemorate deliverance from Egyptian bondage is otherworldly in its force, emotion and layers of meaning.
As Simon, Johnny Lee Davenport brings a decency, self-confidence and self-knowledge to the play’s pivotal character. He embodies the shuffling, obedient slave of just yesterday, while evidencing the emerging freeman, at the helm of his future. Keith Mascoll’s John is spry and cocky, with impeccable timing and delivery. His is Simon’s perfect foil.
For a Jew, the complex messages of “The Whipping Man” are sobering. How do we face our collective hypocrisy that, after suffering the evils of slavery, we became slave owners? How do we bear our collective shame and guilt that we converted slaves to Judaism, but did not treat them as fellow human beings? What are the roles and responsibilities of legacy, trust, family and faith? We can almost channel the discomfort of many southern Jewish families as they sat down to the seder meal in 1865, a dank cloud of irony hovering unwelcome over the table.
To its great credit, the New Rep recognized the challenge posed by this complicated play, and invited the public to a free symposium of Jewish and African American scholars who discussed its meanings prior to the opening of the show. Perhaps the most insightful comment was by Professor Hillel Levine, an expert in historical conciliation, who interpreted “The Whipping Man” as a commentary on lost opportunities during Reconstruction.
“Maybe if Abraham Lincoln had had seders all over the country, things would have been different. Maybe it’s not too late,” Levine pondered.
“The Whipping Man” is the perfect antidote to this winter’s arctic freeze. Go with friends, maybe even read the play, and then settle in for scintillating discussion. The hot topics are sure to warm heart, mind and soul.
Pictured above from left: Jesse Hinson (Caleb), Johnny Lee Davenport (Simon) and Keith Mascoll (John) participate in a Passover seder in “The Whipping Man.”
Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures