Though the story of Civil War has been explored thousands of times through almost every artistic medium, rarely has the irony inherent in the existence of the Jewish Confederate slave-owner been addressed. More unique yet is that a Puerto Rican playwright with virtually no personal connection to the Civil War ventured to dissect this aspect of our nation’s history. Yet, against all odds, and perhaps at the cost of some historical accuracy, Matthew Lopez’s Whipping Man at Kitchen Theatre succeeds in asking serious questions about the dichotomy of “us and them,” freedom and responsibility and past and future, though the work’s answers to these questions sometimes leave the viewer unsatisfied.
Lopez’s “eureka” moment in his preparation of Whipping Man occurred when he realized that the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox in 1865 was separated by only a single day with the first night of Passover, the Jewish holiday that commemorates the biblical exodus of Jewish slaves from Egypt. It is precisely on this date that Lopez’s work begins.
Caleb DeLeon (Daniel Berlingeri), Whipping Man’s Confederate Jewish protagonist, drags himself into his once-grand family estate, which lies in ruin, to find that only one of his former slaves, Simon (Alexander Thomas), remains. After a tense encounter, which finds Caleb looking down the barrel of Simon’s rifle, the two reminisce. Yet underneath the friendly exchange, Caleb’s natural tendency to treat Simon as a slave and Simon’s struggle to demonstrate his newfound freedom penetrate the niceties.
As the two argue over the necessity of removing Caleb’s horribly gangrenous leg, John (Darian Dauchan), a willful former DeLeon family slave, arrives at the home. His reason for returning to the estate he so deeply resents is unclear, but it quickly becomes obvious that Caleb, Simon, and John will be forced to remain there together: Caleb, because of his physical inability to move after the amputation of his leg; Simon, both because of his feelings of responsibility to his former “master” and the promise of Caleb’s father to give him money upon his return; and John, who finds that with the benefits of freedom comes one major drawback — there is no way of knowing where to go, what to do, or, indeed, how to live. United by their shared religion but divided by their dark pasts, the three wrestle with deep emotional divides as they prepare for the first night of Passover.
Daniel Berlingeri, a senior acting student at Ithaca College, succeeds in bringing out his character’s deep guilt and shattered hope. Simon’s simultaneous habit to please and will to dream is clearly identified through Alexander Thomas’ portrayal of the character. Providing comic relief as well as deep emotional intensity, Darian Dauchan’s performance is a bright addition to the thematically dark Whipping Man. In a setting as humble as Kitchen Theatre, where a play lives and dies on the commitment of the performers, it was clear that the actors were fully devoted to portraying every nuance of their characters’ identities.
Their performances underscore the work’s powerful themes of separation and unity — particularly when the former slaves, both Jews like their master, quote scripture. In one powerful segment, Simon asks Caleb: If “the Bible says Jews cannot enslave Jews … were we Jews, or were we slaves?” The reference cuts to the core of the Southern Jew’s suddenly clear hypocrisy — how can one who adheres to the bible both ignore the parallel between African American and Jewish slavery, and, more egregiously, attempt to teach one’s slaves a religion that contradicts his own inhumane actions unto his ‘people’?
Though the hypocrisy may seem purely staged, Prof. Ross Brann, near eastern studies, the historical adviser to Whipping Man, cautions that the existence of Jewish slaves in the South was a “historical reality,” albeit a very rare one.
“Southern Jews were totally southern, seeking their own acceptance in southern society,” even if this meant owning slaves, he said. Fascinatingly, there is “no recognition of the irony” of the Jewish slave-owner shown in most historical records.
Lopez uses this contradiction between action and religious belief that is so central to the play mostly for dramatic purposes. In some ways, therefore, Lopez misses an opportunity to explore more realistic post-Civil War cultural confrontations. Whipping Man still manages to pose some difficult questions, but its substance is marred by Lopez’s lack of effort to address them. The play is resolved with the dissipation of the interdependence between the three characters, but no larger takeaway. Perhaps this is Lopez’s point.
Despite the questionable historical accuracy, and its lack of answers, Whipping Man forces us to grapple with our past, our collective identity and our responsibility for our nation’s actions, even if we aren’t descended from those who were involved in the horrors and hypocrisy of the era.
Original Author: Sam Bromer