Review: The Whipping Man

The Whipping Man

by

Howard Adelman

For a while, particularly at the end of the eighties, one of the scourges of anti-Semitism was the big lie that Jews were prominent in America and the Caribbean as slave traders and sellers or, at the very least as financiers of that trade and exchange. (Cf. The Nation of Islam (1991) The Secret relationship between Blacks and Jews) During the nineties, research and a series of academic books and articles demolished this canard. (For one of the earliest, cf. Henry Louis Gates Jr. (1992) "Black Demagogues and Pseudo-Scholars," The New York Times, 20 July, A15) Jews were involved in all aspects of the slave trade, but their role was relatively miniscule.

The same is true of slave ownership. Only 15,000 Jews, though some estimates go as high as 25,000 (Robert N. Rosen (2000) The Jewish Confederates), lived in the confederate states when the American Civil War erupted. Of those, Jews who owned slaves were overwhelmingly urban; they held slaves as domestic servants. However, 90% of the American slave population worked on plantations. Among plantation owners, of 11,000 significant slave holders, only four or less than 0.04% were recorded as Jews. Thus, of almost 4,000,000 slaves, 3,600,000 of whom lived on plantations, Jews may have owned relatively few slaves, but those numbers on the four plantations numbered possibly as high as fifteen hundred altogether. The Whipping Man, a play by Matthew Lopez directed by Philip Akin and a joint venture of two theatre companies, the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company and Obsidian, a Black theatre company, is set on a fictional version of one of these four Jewish plantations. The play is currently on stage at the Toronto Centre for the Arts.

Further, in the play, the slaves, though not converted to Judaism, were raised as Jews, a practice totally consistent with Jewish teaching. Deuteronomy 16:14 reads: "And thou shalt rejoice in thy feast, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy man-servant, and thy maid-servant, and the Levite, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are within thy gates." Servants or slaves (ebed) were expected to participate in all festivals and especially expected to honour shabat, an instruction many Jews in Toronto with nannies might find surprising. Further, there were specific rules laid down about their treatment. Slaves could not be overworked. On the other hand, they could be legally held as property and sold and bought. That in itself presents a conundrum for Jews celebrating Passover and their own escape from slavery.

Lopez` play is not the first work of fiction to take up this setting. Alan Cheuse used it in his novel, Songs of Slaves in the Desert: A Novel of Slavery and the Southern Wild dealing with a slave girl growing up on a rice plantation and her involvement with a slave-owning Jewish family. Cheuse in interviews said that he got his idea from a period when he went to Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, joined a Jewish fraternity and met the President who was Black, Len Jeffries, who afterwards went onto a distinguished academic career. Cheuse set his novel in pre-Civil War South; Lopez set his play in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. There are no notes in the theatre program to indicate where Lopez got his very clever idea to juxtapose a Passover seder held by observant slaves on a Jewish plantation after the end of the Civil War.

The first day of Passover in 1865 was 11 April. It was a Tuesday. The Civil War had started four years earlier on 12 April 1861. After the decisive victory of Union forces at the Battle of Five Forks on 1 April, after desertions and casualties from the Confederate Army became massive after being attacked by Major General Philip Sutherland leading a Union army of 50,000, five times the size of his decimated and demoralized force, General Robert E. Lee was forced to abandon Petersburg and Richmond. Lee surrendered in Northern Virginia on Sunday, 9 April at McLean House in the village of Appomattox Court to General Ulysses S. Grant, 36 hours before the first seder was scheduled to be held. Abraham Lincoln was shot and killed on Good Friday, 14 April of that week. In the play, the Passover seder is held on the Friday evening when the shabat meal is also scheduled to accommodate the news that Father Abraham, as Simon calls him in the play, was shot.

One of those deserters from Richmond is fictionalized as Captain Caleb DeLeon, the son of a Jewish plantation owner who arrives at the destroyed plantation house at the opening of the play. 10,000 Jews served on both sides of the Civil War and they suffered casualties in the same enormous ratios as the rest of the population. Caleb has arrived home over a week after he was wounded. The bullet is still in his leg which has become gangrenous. In the opening of the second act, Caleb stands unwounded, an apparition of his previous existence as a soldier, to read one of his love letters sent home to his lover describing the horrors of the war in general and of Petersburg in particular probably drawn either from J. Tracy Power’s 1998 collection of Confederate soldiers` letters and diaries, Lee’s Miserables: Life in the Army of Northern Virginia from the Wilderness to Appomattox or Robert Alexander`s more recent 2003 collection, Five Forks: Waterloo of the Confederacy which intersperses diary and letter entries with the author`s own impressions.The Petersburg National Battlefield Memorial site which has diary entries and letters on display is well worth a visit to get a sense of the enormous horrors of that battle.

The opening battle scene of Stephen Spielberg`s movie is set at the Battle of Jenkin`s Ferry, one year earlier, to fit the timeline of the movie. Instead of the realism of Spielberg`s Saving Private Ryan depicting Omaha Beach on D-Day, this famous director offered a far more surrealistic and evocative portrayal of close-quarter fighting in the deep mud of battle, a vision that could only be hinted at in the play when Caleb read from the letter he sent. But it was the same vision and would helped us in the audience identify with Caleb`s suffering if the scene had come earlier in the play.

After all, the play is a juxtaposition of two sides of the Civil War, Black slaves who identified with the Union versus their former masters, in this case, the Jewish son of a Jewish plantation owner. The slaves are celebrating Passover and this year in Jerusalem for they have been emancipated by Father Abraham who was assassinated two weeks after the end of the Civil War near the end of the play. Caleb, on the other hand, has lost his faith after the horrors of the war as well as his status as the owner and commander of the behaviour of his former slaves.

The play is totally plot driven so one cannot review the production adequately without giving away that plot. From the audience reaction at the end – they gave the performers a standing ovation – and the personal comments of friends whom we met coincidentally after the play, the audience loved the play and its production. I found Sterling Jarvis who plays Simon, the older Black Plantation quasi-manager, who saves Caleb`s life and initiates the seder, to have offered a stellar performance, though one individual after the play complained that it was difficult for her to follow all his dialogue because he tended to mumble into his chest rather than project. I myself had no such difficulty.

Robert Crew in his Toronto Star review of 20 March, after noting the oft-repeated notes of the publicity that Lopez`play has been one of the most frequently produced plays since it was first staged in 2006, comments that Lopez skillfully unveils "revelation after revelation. And director Philip Akin keeps the audience engaged to the very end, when a final skeleton exits the closet." That is indeed how the play works, not by character development or thematic exploration, but by plot revelation of hidden secrets around the central theme of remembering as a way of rediscovering and recovering freedom. Crew concludes, "It’s a solid piece of theatre, fast-moving and entertaining yet offering some knotty little questions to ponder." Though I did agree with his criticisms of the credibility of Brett Donahue`s performance of Caleb, I came away as a tiny dissenting minority about both the general quality of the play with a few criticisms of the production itself.

However, mine is clearly a very minority view. Gregory Bunker in his review, "Spinning Slavery" thought the play explored "the notion that a religion with the history and pride of escaping slavery could be kosher with imposing such chains on others," whereas I saw this as merely the clever occasion of the play while it tried to probe deeper into a notion of bondage tied to memory that both frees and ties one down. In Bunker`s view, the three players, "With the help of innumerable bottles of whisky…begin to open up and clean the festering wound of slavery." Instead, I saw the author as celebrating Judaism as a questioning religion and using that to probe deeper and raise even more questions about the after effects of slavery on the psyche as well as the body politic. Bunker concluded, "The Whipping Man is a thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking play about overlapping identities, their complexities, paradoxes, incompatibilities, and their resolutions. For its polish and novel, well-written story, The Whipping Man is a drama to be seen." I would agree that the play is worth seeing, but not for the same reasons.

The director, Philip Atkin, from his remarks on line clearly understood that the play was not about resolutions. "I love plays that focus us inexorably on those crucial moments in time. That dive deep and open up big questions. I love that both of our plays this season do not dwell in the cult of the answer but reside firmly in the cult of the question. And it is with those questions that we bring who we are into the theatre and are forced to engage one on one with what is being asked." (The Charlebois Post, http://www.charpo-canada.com/2013/03/first-person-director-philip-akin-on.html) Atkin was clearly surprised by the reaction of a Jewish audience – which last night seemed to be overwhelmingly Jewish – that was so discomfited by part of their history that they did not seem to know when Blacks were enslaved by Jews. So how did they reconcile their discomfort with their enthusiasm for the play? Was that enthusiasm in part a liberal reaction to that discomfort?

In my own view, the play, as I said above, was plot-driven. The need to uncover revelation after revelation to drive the plot prevented the deeper exploration of the questions and themes raised – whether of lords and bondsmen, mastery and slavery, memory used to recall slavery and celebrate freedom and memory used to reinforce bondage and inhibit freedom, Judaism as a religion of questioning and Jews as a group who have the opposite propensity of denial and not coming face to face with their own past and even the injustices written into the Haggadah read at Passover.

Lynn Slotkin in her review on the radio on CIUT`s morning show on 23 March described the joint effort of two production companies "as a very fine production directed with tremendous style, energy and intelligence by Philip Akin…that echoes the plight of two peoples—Jews and blacks—and shows how they are so similar. The play is gripping in its story-telling; full-bodied in its characters; and compelling in what it has to say about freedom, choice, moral fibre and responsibility. Simon often asks John is he a slave or a Jew? I love that distinction and it reverberates in this play." I myself found the story telling to be predictable, the plot devices contrived, arbitrary and generally unnecessary, the characters left undeveloped and unaltered, and the themes pronounced but unexplored.

Sonia Borkar in her review may have grasped the source of enchantment of the play. As she wrote, "The show is so intense and sucks you in from the moment the lights go down.

I found this show interesting on so many levels because I don’t know much about American History or the Jewish culture and to watch something where they both intersect was fascinating to me." Gentile and non-Jewish audiences are evidently most fascinated by the makeshift seder in the second act. As Borkar wrote, "For me it was ironic to see an enslaved Jewish black man singing about the struggles of freedom the Jews had endured when they fled Egypt and the parallels to his own life. Simon’s faith now made complete sense to me. All these centuries later he was still a Jewish man fighting for his freedom. It’s also an interesting commentary on human nature to see a culture that survives slavery then enslaves another."

(http://www.mooneyontheatre.com/2013/03/23/review-the-whipping-man-harold-green-jewish-theatre-companyobsidian-theatre/)

Borkar encouraged everyone to see the show. "The script is great, the acting and direction are fantastic, the set couldn’t be more fitting and the trek is more than worth it. And if you don’t know much about the subject matter you will still be moved to tears and definitely learn a little bit about an important slice of history." I found the script contrived and the set a representation of the interior of a Toronto home, except for one small Doric column, rather than of an impressive huge plantation home. However, the direction is indeed excellent. The acting of Sterling Jarvis is outstanding. Thomas Olajide tried mightily and with great skill to reconcile the scholarly and studious side of John with his scallywag character and huge repressed rage, but here I found the inadequacy lay in the play for, given the material, I could not imagine how to make these tensions into a coherent character – the studious John is sacrificed to the scoundrel with the memory of Caleb`s betrayal and John`s whipping as the explanation for an unstoppable rage serving as a cover to bottle up and then explode the perilous contradictions.

Finally, I do not expect plays or movies to teach us history, but they can induce one to look into history. The play certainly succeeds on that level. The program notes could have helped if a full page had been devoted to providing some historical background or even if a simple timeline of the two weeks covered by the play could have been included.

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