The Whipping Man
Last week, I was asked through my department chair here at the staff college if I would be interested and available to participate in a Scholar’s Forum at the Kansas City Repertory Theater. It was to follow a performance of a three-man play called The Whipping Man on Saturday, 31 March.
The play opens in April 1865 just as Passover begins the day after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrenders at Appomattox. Caleb, a Jewish Confederate soldier, returns to his war-ravaged family home in Richmond, Virginia, from which his parents have fled. Simon and John, his former slaves, are now living in the house. All three men now face the devastation that the war has brought to their lives as well as the challenges and possibilities of their new relationship to each other. Each man must come to a new understanding of their faith and of what freedom means to an individual and a society.
Playwright Matthew Lopez links the historical enslavement of the Jews with the enslavement of African-Americans in the United States in a compelling drama blended with surprising moments of humor as secrets and truths propel these three fascinating protagonists into a new day.
Fresh from its New York debut where the show was so well received it was extended three times, comes a new work rooted in the largely unknown but true history of Jewish slaveholders in the South. This extraordinary new play is a powerful exploration of lives that come unraveled as the ravages of slavery are revealed at the close of the Civil War. The Whipping Man is one of the most original and thrilling new plays on the history of race, religious identity, and what it means to be free. “Emotionally potent” – The New York Times
I accepted the invitation and brought my daughter Corinne with me. First half of the play was a bit intense for an eight-year old. So she spent most of the first act playing in the lobby and conversing with the member of the theater’s staff, Melinda McCrary, who had invited me to see the play and moderated the forum afterward. Corinne was, though, able to handle the second half and ended up enjoying it a lot more than I (and she) thought she would. She especially enjoyed getting to go up on the stage and look around backstage after the forum, see how they did all of the special effects, and afterward remarked she could not wait to tell her friends about it.
The forum was also excellent. About 50-60 members of what was about a 300-500 person audience remained afterward for the panel, which consisted of myself, Ms. McCrary, and a local rabbi. The discussion hit on a wide range of topics, driven mostly by questions from the audience. (As I have documented earlier, the Q & A is always my favorite part of any speaking engagement.) Among the subjects that we discussed were trench warfare in 1864-65, the African-American experience in Reconstruction, and Jewish traditions in the context of 19th-century American religious history.
The play was absolutely fantastic too. If you get an opportunity to see it, I highly recommend taking advantage of it. I have never been what might be considered an “enthusiast of the lively arts”, but this is the sort of thing that could make me one!