What better way to celebrate Black History month than to see “The Whipping Man” an intriguing new play by Matthew Lopez at NY City Center Stage 1 – a Manhattan Theatre production. And for those of you who celebrate Passover, even though it’s a bit early. I’ll explain.
Mr. Lopez has devised a script (I was captured by the writing and storyline) that deals with the homecoming of a Jewish Confederate soldier Caleb DeLeon (Jay Wilkison) who is reunited with two former slaves – Simon (Andre Braugher) and John (Andre Holland) both brought up in the Jewish faith by the somewhat liberal parents of Caleb. Liberal, up to a point. They can still send their slaves to the Whipping Man when need be.
The Civil War has ended and Caleb, with a gun shot to his leg that has gone unattended limps back to his old plantation home – think Tara in ruins. The magnificently appropriate set by John Lee Beatty shows what once was and now is in all its tattered glory even down to a mezuzah that has remained unscathed at the Richmond Virginia mansion door down to the water dripping from the leaky roof.
Lit mostly by candlelight and some terrific work from lighting designer Ben Stanton, “The Whipping Man ” starts out as an almost Gothic tale with thunder and lightning and the graphic description of how Simon is going to amputate the gangrenous leg of Caleb, which he proceeds to do with the help of a bottle of whiskey, a saw and the help of a reluctant John.
After this initial shock which grabs your attention like nothing else ever has, the play settles down into an extended family melodrama. Good melodrama. Where the three men are forced to understand each other, revealing secrets and settling some old scores over a meal of Caleb’s non kosher horse.
It just so happens that Passover coincides with the end of the war, the freeing of the slaves and the assassination of Lincoln. Simon wants to celebrate Passover. Will Caleb who has lost his faith agree? Will John stay or be on his way to New York? Some of the many questions besides – “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
Andre Braugher gives a poignant and commanding performance as he learns some awful truths but still has hopes and dreams as he sings a stirring “Let My People Go” (Go Down Moses). Andre Holland lends some wonderful moments of humor with his looting of neighbor’s homes and his stash of whiskey and wine. Jay Wilkison struggles valiantly with his faith and the truth that is revealed in the packet of letters he so passionately holds onto is just one of the many twists and turns the plot takes.
But it is the fine, intelligent and original script that captures our hearts along with the excellent direction of Doug Hughes and the powerful performances that you will remember long after Black History month and Passover have gone.
www.mtc-nyc.org Photo: Joan Marcus
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