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EMAV Review: "Whipping Man" is a surprising shared history of American identity and Civil

★★★★☆ - Delicious

“Why is this night different from all other nights?” For three Jews -- one a former Confederate soldier, two his former slaves -- gathered around a makeshift Seder table in Richmond, VA, at the close of the Civil War, age-old questions of justice and freedom find new and surprising answers. The compelling events of this delicious 4-Star drama engage the audience throughout by raising issues of race, history, religion and family as former slaves and slave masters struggle to acclimate to the new emancipated social order.

The play begins on Thursday, April 13, 1865, just five days after the American Civil War has ended – and only a few days before Passover. A wounded young Confederate soldier (Caleb DeLeon) has returned from combat to find his family home in ruins. Ravaged by the war it is now an empty shell of what was once a fine estate -- scorched and demolished by fire, all its riches ransacked by looters. His family has fled to safer territory, but Simon, an elder and faithful former slave of the family’s, is staying with the house until the DeLeon family returns.

Simon immediately notices the bullet wound festering on Caleb’s leg and insists that amputation will be necessary, much to Caleb’s fear and disapproval. He refuses to be taken to a hospital, and insists Simon be the one to perform the amputation. Against his better judgment and full of doubt, Simon agrees.

As Simon begins to ply Caleb with whiskey and make preparation for the improvised surgery, a hooded figure presents itself in the broken doorway. John, another former slave of the DeLeon family and childhood companion of Caleb’s, has taken to looting the abandoned houses around town and is surprised to find Caleb home. The three must navigate their new relationships while settling with demons from the past, culminating in a Passover Seder where former master and slaves must decide where honesty and loyalty will lie.

“In researching the end of the war and the very eventful month of April 1865, I came across a reference to the fact that Passover began that year on April 10, the day immediately following Lee‘s surrender at Appomattox. This meant that as Jews across the nation were celebrating this sacred ritual commemorating their ancestors’ freedom from bondage in Egypt, a new kind of exodus was occurring all around them. The result, I hope, is an inexorable link between the African- American and Jewish imperatives of reminding successive generations about their people‘s past. There has always been a conversation between Black and Jewish histories in the United States. It is a conversation based, I believe, on a similar history. In The Whipping Man, that similar history becomes a shared one.” [Matthew Lopez, playwright]

Ms. Joel R. Scoville (director) has assembled a gifted ensemble and adeptly explores themes of liberation and deliverance. Powerfully leading the cast is Derek Charles Livingston in the role of Simon, desperate to preserve this war-torn home and its ethnically diverse “family” while reveling in his new-found emancipation from slavery. David Kurtz gives a solid performance as Caleb, the young veteran soldier, moving from shell-shocked amputee to grieving lover. Xavier Donte Brown, in the role of John, struts his “liberation” convincingly and defiantly until realizing that he remains trapped by his own “choices” in this abandoned town and disheveled dwelling.

Director Sackville’s production team establishes and maintains a most convincing environment throughout the evening for exploring the plight of these newly-freed African-American slaves and the pangs of creating a new identity in the aftermath of war, injustice and violence: set design by Chris Davies; lighting by Raphael Daniels-Devost; costumes by Kim Glover and Candice Wynants; and sound by Sandy Stein.

“Dramaturg is the theatre’s most misunderstood field in terms of what they do and how they do it”, according to TDF’s Theatre Dictionary. There are a million things that dramaturgs do to get to that magical, alchemical moment that occurs when artists are huddled in the rehearsal room or theatre talking about what is and isn’t working in a production. Dramaturgs work with various aspects of the production of a work, including crafting educational materials, creating marketing copy, facilitating conversations amongst the artistic team, and running a post-show discussion. If you need it done for a production, a dramaturg can probably do it!

So, in this case, Joshua Meltzer deserves special recognition for his work as dramaturg on this production. “Helping with the Hebrew dialogue; molding the American Jewish experience and behavior in the deep South during this time period; keeping the actors on track about the differences between “Jews in the North and Jews in the South”; background information & trappings for director, performers and production team members to more accurately reflect historical details.”

Playwright Matthew Lopez’s first work, "The Whipping Man," has been sweeping regional and professional theaters since its debut in 2006. “It is a play of rich and brutal situational context, but it is a play about the inner man – dignity, decency, hate, longing, brutality, honesty, goodness, love, devotion." [Pacific Conservatory Theatre’s Artistic Director, Mark Booher]

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