Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

The Whipping Man: Moving and Unusual
Civil War Drama

Also see Bob's review of Full Bloom

Brandon O'Neil Scott and Frankie R. Faison
The world premiere of The Whipping Man, the richly imaginative and moving new Civil War play by neophyte playwright Matthew Lopez at Luna Stage in Montclair, is cause for celebration. The central motif of the play is that the surrender of the Confederacy and the freeing of the slaves occurred just as Jews were preparing to begin their Passover celebration commemorating the freeing of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. Thus, at the season of the Biblical miracle, America was blessed with a like miracle with the freeing of its African slaves.

It is several days after the surrender of the Confederacy at Appomattox, and badly wounded youthful Confederate officer Caleb DeLeon drags himself into his destroyed family home in Richmond, Va. Standing guard to protect the remains of the house is the older house slave Simon. As Caleb begins ordering him about, Simon, now a free man, responds, "all these things you're telling me to do, by rights now you need to be asking me." Still, Simon is solicitous of Caleb and clearly cares about him and the DeLeon family. About to arrive at the house is another, newly freed DeLeon slave, John. A young contemporary of Caleb, John bears much hostility toward him, but remains on the scene and reluctantly tends to Caleb for reasons of his own.

In short order, we discover that the DeLeons are a Jewish family, and that when Simon was a child he was taught Judaism by Caleb's grandfather and accepted the Jewish faith. Simon prepares to conduct a Passover Seder which this year has special meaning for him, but both Caleb and John are resistant. Similarly to Simon, John was taught and has accepted the Hebrew faith. However, John is more questioning than Simon, and he questions whether the DeLeons sincerely consider Simon and him to be family, to be Jews. He has read in Leviticus that "if thou buy a Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve. And in the seventh he shall go out for nothing." John asks Simon to explain how he can "square" his faith with the DeLeons' hypocrisy in keeping them as slaves in contradiction to Biblical injunction. Simon speaks to both John and Caleb:

I can't. I can't square anything I don't understand. It ain't ours to square. That's why we always asking ... sometimes you didn't get answers that you liked. But you kept on asking. That's what a Jew is. We talk with God, we wrestle with him. Sometimes we even argue with Him. We never stop asking, looking, hoping for answers. You don't lose your faith by not getting answers. You lose your faith by not asking questions. But you're both still asking … This is what we do. This is our family.

There is much in the way of family history and ongoing events and secrets to be revealed over the course of the ninety-five minutes during which Lopez' play will unfold, including what happened to John when he was brought by Caleb's father to The Whipping Man for punishment for perceived misdeeds. None will be revealed here. Suffice it to say that what is revealed is compelling, substantial, tragic and all too believable. It is chronicled by Lopez with eloquence and clear-eyed compassion, opening a window for contemporary audiences on the distance which our country has had to travel and still continues to travel in order to fully heal the dreadful scar which is the legacy of our history of slavery.

Frankie R. Faison is a tower of strength as the steadfast Simon. He conveys the dignity, resolve and innate wisdom of a strong, simple man who can only do what is right. Brandon O'Neil Scott's multifaceted John captures the many faces of a conflicted, shrewd individual faced for the first time in his life with the heady and difficult choices that freedom brings. Author Matthew Lopez has come as close as any author could to producing a microcosm of the genesis of a wide range of today's Black American males, and Scott has smoothly captured this in his performance. Douglas Scott Sorenson is appropriately gruff, overbearing and dense as Caleb. Caleb could be seen to metaphorically represent the southern white American male who would take a very long time to comprehend the corrosive effect of the appalling legacy of slavery.

Directed effectively by Linnet Taylor, the Luna Stage production of The Whipping Man overflows the playing area, placing the action in the laps of the audience which is seated on banks of seats surrounding three sides of what is in effect a thrust stage.

Simon tells Caleb and John that as free men, their future is in their own hands. While Lopez' work here is too dimensional and dramatically skillful to be consigned to the torpid bin of "message plays," this important message is just an additional reason to hope that The Whipping Man achieves the exposure and popularity which it so richly deserves.

The Whipping Man continues performances through May 21, 2006 (Thursdays 7:30 p.m./ Fridays & Saturdays 8 p.m./ Sun. 2 p.m.) at Luna Stage, 695 Bloomfield Avenue, Montclair, NJ. Telephone: 973-744-3309/ online

The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez; directed by Linnet Taylor

Simon……………....Frankie R. Faison
John……......Brandon O'Neil Scott
Caleb....Douglas Scott Sorenson

Photo: EJ Carr

Be sure to Check the current schedule for theatre in New Jersey

- Bob Rendell