Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man is enjoying its Austin premiere at The City Theatre in east Austin, February 7th through March 2nd. A tragedy, the topic of the play is slavery and Emancipation at the very end of the War Between the States in the ruins of Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy. What gives the play a high degree of originality is that the Confederate officer and his former slaves, with whom he reunites, are all Jews. This is historically accurate—the Jewish population in the South, to the extent that they may have participated in the plantation economy, held slaves. Slaves who wished to convert to Judaism were not forbidden from doing so. The action of the play, which includes a Passover Seder in the ruins of the mansion with almost no food, wrestles with the new world of Emancipation. The former slaves and their former master grew up in the household and consider themselves family. When the power hierarchy of the family is upset, the deep, powerful secrets that every family hides can no longer be held. They release themselves explosively.
A truly competent cast makes this production work. Making it all more difficult and the more impressive, they enact only three characters. Simon (Robert Pellette) formerly ran the household. His faith is unshakeable; he is a being of love, and with the new miracle of Emancipation he knows he can remake a world of justice. He is illiterate but has immense practical knowledge, and in Homeric fashion has memorized the Haggadah from listening to others, all for recitation at the Seder. John (Richard R. Romeo) grew up in the household, learned to read illegally from his White master and loves books. But he makes his living from theft and hustling. He is Stepnfetchit-becoming-Sportin’-Life and has a lethal fondness for the bottle. Caleb (Andrew Bosworth) is the scion of the family, returned from the war and the Confederate Army grievously wounded. He effectively lost his faith during the war, and throughout the play remains unwilling to accept the implications of Emancipation and the need for change in their familial relations. He wants no change in their power relationships that had him as top dog, even though now he is powerless and incapacitated. Stacy Glazer directed the play, and the artistic director of The City Theatre, Andy Berkovsky, served as the production designer.
In spite of such creative work, Act I is excessively long and slow. Tragedies need some humor or lightness that relieve the tension and also show what is lost, what could have been, but what is not. It wasn’t until Act II that we found that uplifting charm, that thing by itself that was worth the price of admission. It was Robert Pellette’s repeated singing, in the character of Simon, of “Go Down Moses” during the Passover Seder. Here was music, a capella, in Pellette’s rich voice, with occasional joining in by John, containing and expressing all the hope and joy in the miracle felt by all freed slaves. This familiar song bridged the 19th century and the 21st century, establishing the play’s relevance and bringing in thoughts of the modern genocidal suffering in Rwanda, Syria, and North Korea. But after that, the play hurled us into despair once again.
That explained it all. At the end, one character enters exile from exile, a personal Exodus with no Promised Land out ahead. The other two characters sit in their own personal darknesses, awaiting dissolution. Oddly, for an almost unrelieved tragedy, this was a very satisfying ending.
The Whipping Man runs through March 2nd at the City Theatre in east Austin.