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Let My People Go, But Where?

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“There were approximately twelve hundred Jews who served in the Confederacy including…officers. In the North, 6,000 Jews served in the Union Army, among them…officers and brigadier generals…” Eli N. Evans In his preface to Jews and the Civil War. Simon and John, characters in this play, were slaves on a Southern estate owned by Jews. They are, for all intents and purposes, Jewish, a notion apparently not without historical plausibility.

April 1865—Richmond, Virginia. Simon (Andre Braugher) emancipated from a long life of slavery, has returned to the abandoned, pillaged, burned-out house at which he served, in order to wait for the young Confederate scion (Caleb) to return. His wife and daughter are up North with the Master. An essential part of the household, Simon has been promised money with which to start a new life. “As it says in The Torah, when you set him free, do not let him go empty handed.”He’s surviving on the last of carrots, collards, and cornmeal, without a pot in which to cook.

John (Andre Holland) also raised a slave there, uses the house as a pit stop between drinking binges and foraging, returning each time with sacks of useful, pleasing things, from clothing to books—he’s taught himself to read—from chairs to a chevalier mirror secured in empty homes. John bristles at being accused of robbery. “This whiskey was liberated and is now being occupied by me.” His newfound sense of entitlement is ricocheting against the walls of possibility like a pinball.

Into this leaking, wreck of a refuge crawls Caleb (Jay Wilkinson), a week after being shot at Appomattox, one leg all but eaten away by gangrene. They were, he says, referring to the battle ground hospital set up by the North, too busy taking care of their own, so I left. A naïve and privileged young man, Caleb is so shocked by what he sees and hears, he has difficulty assimilating it. His faith has been shredded. “War is not proof of God’s absence,” corrects Simon, “it’s proof of God’s absence in men’s hearts.” Simon and John are pressed into amputating. The grisly explanation and theatrical preparations are more potent than anything you’ll witness.

Simon, John, and Caleb are three men with secrets whose relationship to one another has suddenly been as irrevocably altered as their respective places in the world of men. The elder among them is secure in his belief of promises made, determined to make the best of things, and unshakable in his faith. Nigger John, as he was nicknamed by a youthful Caleb, feels neither ties nor restrictions. Sent repeatedly to The Whipping Man, his connection to Caleb “stopped being so close,” when the white boy took the pearl-handled weapon and himself beat John. Caleb is defeated. His mind is stuck in the past—far and recent. His soul is rattling around in a shell.

With ingenuity and resolve, Simon and John put together an unforgettable Passover Seder. “Tonight we celebrate the hope and the dream of freedom,” begins Simon, slapping his knee, singing, and reciting his way into a service which though it sounds like a bogus tent revival is, in fact, poignantly meaningful. John holds a Haggadah given Simon by Caleb’s grandfather. Simon can’t read. There’s little need for prompting. Decisions are provoked and secrets revealed spiraling all three into futures filled with minefields.

Andre Braugher brings a kind of weathered grace to his portrayal of Simon. His mellifluous voice is put to great use in quotation and prayer. His presence embodies the surety of Simon’s wisdom and the burdens of his experience. Braugher personifies a man with hard history. His leading of the Seder is inspired; his response to the last truth, masterfully restrained emotional combustion.

Andre Holland’s John is quicksilver. His physical movements are that of someone always aware of what’s happening behind him…cocky, but half expecting to be caught. From the moment he comes on stage, a fully formed personage enters our lives. His eyes are never still, never empty. The childish pride of selective pilfering is beautifully communicated. John is way too articulate and clever for his “station.” Holland makes it seem natural. He has the great skill of listening, adding gravitas to every response.

Jay Wilkinson’s Caleb is admittedly the least demonstrative of the characters. That the actor seems half present, compounds what he might have approached as a challenge. Next to nothing registers in any visible or audible fashion.

Director Doug Hughes has given us not only a well used stage but also one filled with small defining “business” which rivets attention and colors the moment: John’s entrance in a costume of grain sacks; Simon’s hanging a lantern on the barrel of the long rifle with which he defends the house; and Caleb’s soliloquy in the snow. His show of emotional upheaval by means other than raised voices and wide gestures is compelling. Hughes is an artist with timing and the space between.

The splendor that was this house, artfully created by John Lee Beatty (Scenic Design) is indicated in architectural detailing abused and gone to seed. We’re looking at a penniless, sick, dowager. As John fills the place with odd pieces of elegant furniture, half burned candles, a standing mirror, a top hat, a saddle …Beatty creates a painterly still life around the booty chair. The original construction of the Passover table and its scavenged settings is wonderfully realized. The use of a shredded traveler curtain, partly sheer, partly massed, which goes back and forth between scenes creates a fluid, evocative pause, never a disconnect.

Catherine Zuber’s Costume Design offers the perfect balance of good clothes that have seen better days. Attention has been paid to both period accuracy and station. The clothes appear substantially constructed, as they would have been.

Ben Stanton’s Lighting Design makes use of every angle Beatty has created, every change of weather and mood shift. Jill BC DuBoff (Sound Design) gives us storms like the wrath of God and the rain of several minor angels. Both of these practitioners are excellent.

Playwright Matthew Lopez, evidently inspired by films like Glory, has chosen to couch his fascinating drama in the parallel prejudices suffered by African Americans and Jews and to explore the what do I do now?! issue confronted by freed slaves, and later shared by Holocaust survivors. All points merge in April 1865, with the surrender of Colonel Robert E. Lee, the murder of Abraham Lincoln and Passover. Despite such depth of material, The Whipping Man is neither pedantic nor pretentious. Nor is it preachy. Lopez has crafted an intimate, finely wrought story—provocative, elucidating, moving and a potential Pulitzer.

Photos by Joan Marcus

The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez
Directed by Doug Hughes
With Andre Braugher, Andre Holland, Jay Wilkinson
The Manhattan Theater Club at City Center
131 West 55 Street
CityTix® (212-581-1212) and www.nycitycenter.org
Through March 20, 2011

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