If you ask most people who the first African-American of the Jewish faith was, they might say uber-entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. And while "The Candyman" did indeed convert to Judaism in the late 1950s, he probably was preceded in that category by many others.
This thought, and many others, are triggered by The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez, now at None Too Fragile Theater. The fact that a gay Hispanic man has written a play about two recently emancipated black slaves and their Jewish master is remarkable enough. But the fact that the script touches on issues that are in the headlines at this very moment — such as how well African-Americans have merged into society 150 years later — is extraordinary. With young black men and women being shot and otherwise killed by police in seemingly indefensible situations, one wonders how far we've actually come in that process of emancipation.
Set in Richmond, Virginia, in 1865, the play begins with an injured Confederate soldier collapsing on his home's front porch. At first the rebel is accosted by Simon, the old family slave who has been left to guard the property. But then Simon recognizes the soldier as Caleb DeLeon, the son of the homestead's owners who have fled the chaos and carnage of the war. Trouble is, Caleb has a festering wound in his leg that needs to be attended to very soon.
As Caleb and Simon review their less than attractive options (cut off the leg or die soon in misery), another household slave, John, shows up with booty he's filched from nearby abandoned houses. Turns out the 20-something John had been raised side-by-side with Caleb from childhood, one as an owner and one as property. And after some convincing, John agrees to assist in the amputation, which is conducted with just enough verisimilitude before a blackout to give everyone in the audience the shivering fits.
That's a powerful opening for a play, and it sets a high bar which Lopez' somewhat convoluted script never quite surmounts. Instead, we gradually learn that Simon and John were brought into the Jewish faith by the DeLeon family, and they each have a different but strong connection to being Jewish. Caleb seems much less interested in the trappings of the religion, since the horrors of war have burned his hope down to a small bit of gristle.
The fascinating aspect of The Whipping Man is how these three men have been thrown into an entirely different world, and none knows exactly how and where they fit. As Caleb slowly recovers from the brutal operation, lying on a mattress on the floor, he often reverts back to ordering Simon and John around until they remind him they are now free men. In one instance, Caleb is startled to see John next to him, not recognizing him in his delirium of pain even when John says who he is. It isn't until John says, "It's Nigger John" that Caleb finally remembers and relaxes.
For their part, the two black men are just as mystified by their new status, glad to be "free" but afraid to leave the familiar confines of their now destroyed and looted home. As the overlong first act proceeds, some of the dialog scenes go a bit slack as Lopez explores the varying facets of identity and inclusion that arise through a welter of revealed secrets.
The NTF cast under the direction of Sean Derry does fine work with this less-than-perfect material. David LeMoyne is exceptionally natural and engaging as Simon, showing an affection for both John and Caleb while repressing the truth of his captivity. Suffice to say that his story puts the lie to the myth of the benevolent slave owner. In his best portrayal yet at None Too Fragile, Brian Kenneth Armour crafts an interesting character as John, relishing his newfound freedom and using it to improve his wardrobe and possessions through burglary, while still paying homage to the rituals of his religion.
As Caleb, Benjamin Gregorio suffers with excruciating style and makes clear the confusion that now floods this man's mind. And his flashback scene at the start of the second act, reading a compassionate love note he sent to his beloved Sarah from the battlefield, is compelling. And it includes some of the poetic language that often lifts the work onto a different level as he remembers "... the last night we spent together, willing the night to fight back the day."
Playwright Lopez places this trio in a volatile time, when President Lincoln has just been assassinated and also at the time of Passover, when the story of the passage from slavery to freedom is told. And indeed, John and Simon cobble together a Passover Seder in the second act, complete with hardtack for matzo and horsemeat from Caleb's dead steed.
By drawing the similarities between the ex-slaves and the wealthy Jewish family that owned them, the play opens an interesting door on race relations.
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