By Kay Kipling
According to the notes provided by Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe regarding its current production of Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man, Jews accounted for only 1.25 percent of all Southern slave owners leading up to the Civil War. That’s a small number, but it still provides an engrossing basis for this play, which delivers food for thought on what it means to be truly free.
After all, the Jews themselves had been slaves in Egypt, longing for freedom from the harshness and degradation of their lives. So how they could own slaves themselves hundreds of years later, even under (in this fictional example) relatively kindly terms? And how could the slaves in this story, raised as observant Jews, not realize the disparity between their religion’s codes and their own reality?
The play begins with a thunderstorm and the stumbling appearance onstage of a young Confederate soldier named Caleb. He’s returning, war ended, to what’s left of his Richmond, Va., home, now inhabited only by two slaves. One, the older Simon, is willing to take care of the wounded Caleb, if no longer to take orders from him now that he’s a free man. The other, the younger John, has reasons of his own for not exactly welcoming Caleb with open arms, even though the two were close as children.
In the course of the story, the three men drink, celebrate Passover, mourn the death of President Lincoln, and, eventually, reveal long-buried secrets about the family and their relationships. As they do, Lopez offers both brutal truth (a fairly graphic depiction of a leg amputation, tales of the lashes inflicted by the whipping man of the title) and flashes of welcome humor and humanity.
Under the understanding direction of Howard Millman, the three men of the cast also offer strong, believable performances well-tuned to each other. None of these actors are regular WBTT members, although the faces of Drew Foster, who plays Caleb and grew up on Sarasota stages, and Taurean Blacque (playing Simon), who’s had a long acting career that included years on TV’s Hill Street Blues, may be familiar. Robert Douglas as John may not be so recognizable, but he, too, has impressive regional theater credits.
It is, in fact, an exciting departure for WBTT to use these actors (without meaning any insult to the talented performers who usually turn up here, most often in musicals). And equally exciting that the theater chose to present this play, an area premiere and one well worth seeing, in a production that is intimate, engaging and ultimately powerful.
The Whipping Man continues through Feb. 2; for tickets call 366-1505 or go to wbttsrq.org.