Sometimes, I think that in today’s theater, the performers and others directly connected with the production are getting ahead of the playwrights. Not that there are not some excellent plays being written, but often plays that I don’t think are that good are so greatly enhanced by the quality of the production that they wind up looking better than they are.
That’s what I think about “The Whipping Man”, Theater J’s production that is closing this weekend. The acting of Alexander Strain (who role, as usual, requires him to live up to his name), Mark Hairston and David Emerson Tooney is superb. Jennifer Nelson’s direction, and the entire artistic group, is beyond criticism.
But how about the play itself?
The play carries you along. I don’t think you will fall asleep. Clearly, the dialogue is very well written – the communication between the three characters is handled smoothly and credibly. The plot line, I believe, is less successful: Caleb, wounded young Jewish Confederate officer manages to make it back to his family’s home in Richmond (his horse dying in the front yard), to find it ransacked and heavily damaged. The war is over. The old family house slave, Simon, is still around, and John, a young house slave (contemporary of Caleb, returns (although it is not clear where he has been, or for how long). Caleb’s leg was wounded over a week ago, and gangrene has set in. Simon, clever guy that he is, is able to amputate it above the knee, using standard handyman tools. Caleb’s parents, and Simon’s wife and daughter are gone.
It turns out that neither Caleb nor John are perfect individuals. Simon is, however, a paragon of what it means to be a man under difficult circumstances. Caleb is a deserter from his army unit with no papers, Caleb had impregnated Simon’s daughter on his last leave, John is a thief and a looter and, it turns out, a murderer being stalked by an eye witness to the crime.
In spite of all of this, and what appears to be a form of sibling rivalry between the “peas of a pod”, as Simon terms Caleb and John, without money, sufficient food, health, or any form of security whatsoever, Simon decides that it is Passover and time to have a seder. A makeshift seder it is (hardtack, not matzah; a brick rather than choroset; a horse bone rather than a shank bone), but (while singing “Go Down Moses” and reciting several lines from the Haggadah) Simon runs a seder which makes it clear that he and John (now liberated from their own slavery) and the Jews actually have a lot in common – not a bad point.
Simon can do this because he and John are Jewish – whatever that means under these circumstances. Were there any instances where Jewish slave holders (we know they existed) had Jewish slaves? In an interview, Matthew Lopez, the playwright, says that this is where he went off into the land of fiction, although, he says, people have told him that some Jewish slave holders did have Jewish slaves. But with Judaism, for better or for worse, being what it is – you just can’t say your Jewish and be Jewish, and a slave owner just can’t decide that his slave is Jewish. And certainly the Jews of the pre-Civil War South knew this.
The play deals with difficult and sensitive subjects, and I think Lopez tries to convey an appropriate message with respect to each of them. The Civil War, the relationship between blacks and whites, former masters and former slaves, uncertainty at a time of post-war chaos, Jews as Confederate citizens and southern patriots, etc. But I don’t think that the seemingly artificiality of the Jewish slaves helps; I think it detracts.
I seem to have a fixation on the portrayal of history on the stage. If a play is meant to be historic, it should be historic. If it is not meant to be historic, but rather, say, allegorical or clearly fictional, that is fine, but it should be obvious what it is. Otherwise, you begin to mis-teach history.
Does this mean that you should avoid seeing “The Whipping Man”? Not at all. I think you should see it, in part because so many critics think so highly of the play, and in part because it does bring up a number of important contemporary and historic issues. But I also think you should think about what I am saying – and decide whether you agree or not.