A Twisted Tale of Slavery
Rep’s The Whipping Man offers intense look at a master and his freed slaves.
The Whipping Man, now playing at the Milwaukee Repertory‘s Stiemke Studio, has gotten a lot of attention in regional theater commercial circles. In lesser hands it could be treated as a gimmick play – first, a Jewish Southern household with slaves and second, the gangrene of war placed raw in front of us to cut our emotions to the bone.
But what keeps the characters alive and the tableaus fresh are the intensity and emotional discipline imposed by director Brent Hazelton and the professionalism and unyielding stage expertise of the three actors.
At the end of the Civil War in 1865, a wounded Confederate soldier stumbles home to deal with two suddenly freed slaves, property his family has grown up with. They are all Jews, raised in a devout family and about to celebrate Passover Seder – the freeing of slaves from Egypt. In short, these black slaves are devoted to being free of bondage theologically, but are dutifully in bondage in the American South. The resonance is inescapable but so are the contradictions – who was free and who is free? Free from what or free to do what? Why would a Jewish owner demand both trips to the whipping man and strict adherence to the moral message of Moses?
He’s pushing too hard, of course. The head tells us we only need one reference to the slain Lincoln as “Father Abraham” to get the connection, not the five exclamatory litanies the actors must pull off.
What carries us are the underlying wit and the passion within the exposition. You can criticize Lopez’s points as too flourished, but you can also argue, and I will, that these eloquent excesses are a core theatrical element of why he seems so promising a playwright.
The plot, which for reasons of suspense can only be hinted at, owns up to the strange pigmentation that both emancipation and subjugation created. In the uncomfortable relationships on the stage there is a curious camaraderie of religion but a stranglehold of master-slave psyche lingering down through generations. In the play’s unsettling Seder ritual, as a famous field spiritual rings out amid the Hebrew words (“Go Down Moses”), the slaves, slaveholder and audience alike get a sense of what really makes us brother victims under the skin.
The Jewish echo is only one of the grabbing devices in the play. Even more dominant are gruesome moments – salvos of words and images involving human injuries imposed by war and slavery. If Lopez overplays his hand, the director and actors grab hard and play the convictions to the hilt.
James Craven brings a Shakespearean grandeur and a physical authority by turns stern or amusing to Simon, the older slave determined to be a good Jew (or is that Samaritan?). The script and the director lean on him to become the conscience to his younger charges, and he thrives on the challenge, roaming the stage and wrinkling up in laughter and rage.
As the cunning scavenger quick to insult but slow to run, Ro Biddie is excellent at the sly humor and asides that provide so much of the laughter. The set-pieces of required anger – a top speed reversal of his instinct to underplay – well, that is more difficult.
As the white soldier and troubled slaveholder, Josh Landay has both the most thankless and most demanding task – suggesting arrogance while wracked with suffering and guilt, caught by the plot stage center at every moment of insight and anguish. It’s a strong performance requiring intense concentration and finesse. His sojourn into romantic intensity is gripping but it is his screams of agony that will haunt you.
The production rises above or rushes past some obvious missteps – plot twists the script telegraphs, dialog that lingers beyond the believable. There is over reliance on the sound and lighting stagecraft, on exits and entrances that are more designed to startle than reveal. But give director Hazelton a dramatic crescendo of building human tension and he’ll make every landing stick.
The Whipping Man, through March 16, Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Stiemke Studio, purchase tickets here.
Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You can find his blog here.