Moses Gone Down: Circle Theatre’s “The Whipping Man”

Montgomery Sutton, William "Bill" Earl Ray, David Jeremiah in The Whipping Man

Circle Theatre presents Matthew Lopez’s first play, the critical triumph The Whipping Man, about two former slaves and their former master’s son observing a most unusual Passover at the conclusion of the American Civil War. Seriously? Jewish African-American slaves during the Civil War? Scholars verify that about 50,000 Jews lived in the South as the Civil War broke out, so it stands to reason that some of them would own slaves and some of their slaves would have practiced Judaism. Curious about the parallels between the ancient Jewish Exodus and President Lincoln’s emancipation of the African-American slaves, young actor turned playwright Matthew Lopez started researching the historical subject and wondered how an enslaved person behaves when suddenly set free. “One of my characters says, ‘What do I do now?“ I think that’s a really important question. You can compare it to any great calamity. That question was asked after the Rwandan genocide, I’m sure. It was asked after the Holocaust. That question was asked after 9/11.” He wasn’t sure how to fit all the pieces together until he learned that the 1865 Passover observance began the day after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. And his play began to emerge.

After two years’ worth of readings and rewrites, New Jersey’s Luna Stage premiered The Whipping Man in April 2006. Since then it has performed to wide critical and audience acclaim at Penumbra Theater Company in St. Paul, Minn., Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass., the Old Globe Theater in San Diego and in January, 2011, at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York City.  Fort Worth’s Circle Theatre presents this gripping, thought-provoking, beautifully crafted play through April 14, 2012.

Circle’s subterranean, low-ceilinged venue framed by enormous columns makes an ideal place in which to create the ransacked, dimly lit ruins of the parlor of a formerly genteel home in Richmond, VA, the play’s setting.  Clare Floyd de Vries’ burned out design jumbles realistically around the full perimeter of the space, framing the action unobtrusively while reminding the viewer of the chaos, anarchy and danger lurking beyond the scorched, crumbling walls. A badly injured, filthy, emaciated young Confederate officer hauls himself through the still-standing front door, in search of a safe resting place. He collapses on the floor, where he is discovered by the home’s former head slave Simon (William “Bill” Earl Ray).

Simon examines Caleb's badly injured leg

The young officer Caleb (Montgomery Sutton) doesn’t realize he has stumbled into his own home until he and Simon recognize each other, partly delighted, partly dismayed. Shortly after, another former slave John (David Jeremiah) furtively sneaks in wearing a mask, carrying a sack full of stolen items and brazenly brandishing a half-consumed bottle of whiskey. Trouble shadows him like a storm cloud.

All three have suffered greatly during the war. Now with Lee’s fresh surrender and the slaves’ emancipation, their expectations and reactions to the huge paradigm shift that takes place, along with the arrival of Passover, create a potent, gripping drama of human transformation. Each man carries dark secrets and suffers loss as the play unfolds; how each comes to terms with his challenges and grief within the context of celebrating a Seder together makes for a unique, fascinating performance.

Director Harry Parker cast three of the most capable, versatile actors in the region in these roles and elicited memorable, dynamic performances from all. Caleb and John, master’s son and former slave, grew up together as close as brothers until a tragic, cruel incident tore them apart.

John and Caleb struggle

The two young men spar with the familiarity of people who were once close but whose breach has gone too long unhealed. Their easy banter turns hostile at a moment’s notice; revenge and power struggle issues emerge larger than life. Equally at ease in period roles as they both are in contemporary ones, Sutton and Jeremiah bring intense veracity and believable depth to their characters and their exploration of newborn relationship and self-definition. Repelled by each other at first, antagonized by their clouded history, the characters learn they will need each other to survive. Written subtly into the script, their major transitions unfold with natural grace. Sutton and Jeremiah are always interesting to watch, never stereotyped or overblown in portrayal, and wear their characters as if born to play them. The older ex-slave Simon carries the play’s defining arc. Part father figure to the younger men, part Moses envisioning the Promised Land, part devil’s advocate and vengeful Old Testament Jehovah, Simon must convey a respect for the order of ‘old ways’ while embracing the new survival skills demanded by the post-slavery world. Few actors can incorporate all competing aspects of this character while making him a believable human being.

Seder with John and Simon

William “Bill” Earl Ray excels in his portrayal with command and nuance. Underused in this region (both as actor and director) Ray gets to exercise the full range and depth of his skills on stage, while blending smoothly in ensemble under Parker’s precise direction. Through Ray’s seemingly effortless performance, Simon functions as the play’s anchor and catalyst for change. Looming over all three men is the gruesome spectre of “the whipping man”, a grim symbol of the evil at the core of a society built on enslavement.

This is neither a simple play nor a superficial production; the painful enactment of an amputation in Act One provides unexpected visceral realism that some may find hard to watch. In the end, each man comes to grips with what he must do to survive. The human spirit prevails at final curtain, offering a unique, affirming evening of worthwhile, intelligent theatre.

The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez runs through April 14, 2012

Tickets: 817.877.3040

Playwright quotes from:

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