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According to the program notes for Theater J’s production of The Whipping Man, the play is a work of “fact-based imaging.” It may sound more like a lame-ass plagiarism defense than serious dramatic practice, but it’s the truth. Matthew Lopez wrote his script after reading The Jewish Confederates, Robert Rosen’s account of what life was like for the 25,000 Jews who lived in the American South at the cusp of the Civil War. Most lived in larger cities, and 40 percent owned slaves.
Those demographic facts inspired Lopez to dream up the DeLeons, a clan of prosperous slave-owning merchants living in Richmond. As members of the household, the slaves may have actively participated in religious life, and—here’s where things get a little mind-boggling—they may have identified as Jewish, singing spirituals like “Wade in the Water” and “Go Down Moses” with particular fervor.
Imagine, then, as Lopez does, that in April of 1865 those newly freed Jewish African-Americans would have had themselves one surrealist hell of a seder, reciting aloud plans to leave behind bondage in Egypt for the Promised Land.
Unfortunately, The Whipping Man is much more fascinating as premise than final product. Which is not to say this production isn’t worth seeing—only that Lopez has taken an extraordinary set of given circumstances, then set in motion something of a hum-drum Civil War story. If you’ve heard of Sally Hemmings, The Whipping Man’s big revelations won’t come as much of a shock.
The play opens with Caleb DeLeon (Alexander Strain) stumbling into his family’s fire-wrecked Richmond mansion. (The set, with a photographic backdrop and effective façade, is by Daniel Conway). He’s a defeated captain, coming home just days after Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Only Simon (David Emerson Toney) greets him on a dark and stormy night. “I’m thirsty. Get me some water, Simon,” Caleb says, only to be told, by a deep bass voice, “I will, but now you have to ask.”
Caleb is wounded, and too weak to walk or protest. That gangrene-ridden leg should come off, Simon tells him, and what follows is a brutal onstage amputation (and a nice respite from all the brutal onstage rapes D.C. theatergoers have been subjected to this season). With a recovering amputee on the settee, it’s apparent the play’s action will never leave the DeLeon’s parlor, and soon arrives a younger former slave called Nigger John (Mark Hairston), who’s returned home after a busy day of pilfering china, whiskey, and silk cravats from abandoned estates. That leaves about 90 minutes for this odd trio to sort out race and religion in America, circa 1865. Thankfully, all three actors are heavily invested in their characters, and even if they reveal somewhat obvious backstories, they do so engrossingly.
Director Jennifer Nelson has reunited Toney and Hairston just months after they starred in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Much Ado About Nothing, and it’s rewarding to see them perform better in very different parts. And Alexander Strain deserves favorable notice for portraying a tortured soul—kind of like his recent roles as the excommunicated philosopher Baruch de Spinoza at Theater J and Satan at Longacre Lea.
Still, for all the effort that’s gone into The Whipping Man, you may leave feeling a trip to the library is more appealing than another trip to the theater. Who wants to see more onstage amputation? OK, maybe some people do, but The Whipping Man serves best as a reminder thatmany Civil War stories out there that have yet to fuel a playwright’s imagination.