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“The Whipping Man,” Matthew Lopez’s Powerful Play, Makes its L.A. Premiere at the Pico Playhouse

By Beverly Cohn - Editor-at-Large

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The West Coast Jewish Theatre has presented many productions with a Jewish theme, some of which were outstanding and some of which were sub-par.  However, under the sharp, crisp, direction of Howard Tuchman, their latest production, “The Whipping Man,” written by award-winning playwright Matthew Lopez, is a fascinating, complex, unique play, and by far one of the most provocative pieces of material the West Coast Jewish Theatre has produced. 

Returning Confederate soldier, Caleb DeLeon (Shawn Savage) painfully drags himself across the floor of his home. PHOTO: Michael Lamont

L-R: Caleb (Shawn Savage) identifies himself to freed slave Simon (Ricco Ross) who was left behind to guard the DeLeon home when the family fled to safety. Photo: Michael Lamont

“The Whipping Man,” is set in April 1865, following the end of the American Civil War.  At rise, we see a severely wounded Confederate soldier painfully crawling across the floor of this dimly lit, war-ravaged home in Richman, Virginia.   He has been shot in the leg and one of the DeLeon family’s former slaves, yarmulke-wearing Simon, played by an amazing Ricco Ross, aims a shotgun at this unknown stranger. 

 The severely wounded Caleb DeLeon, played by a most talented Shawn Savage, quickly reveals his identity as the son of the owners of the home.  He got shot in Williamsburg, and soon learns that the rest of hisfamily has fled to safer grounds, leaving Simon and John, the other freed slave, wonderfully played by Kirk Kelleykahn, in charge of guarding the home.

L-R: The badly wounded Caleb is comforted by Simon. Photo: Michael Lamont


Upon finding out that this is the son of the former slave owner, Simon immediately begins to administer aid to the gangrene-infected leg, which he realizes must be amputated or else Caleb will die.  Caleb refuses to go to the hospital for reasons that are only hinted at.   John, who also wears a yarmulke, enters the home bearing sacks of goods he “found,” including wine, but despite being a free man, he’s quite reluctant to actually leave the DeLeon home, the only home he’s ever known.  Despite Caleb’s pleading,the leg must be removed which, although masked by dim lighting, and good staging, was still painfully gruesome to hear.  Although still devoted to the family, Simon asserts his newly won freedom by insisting that if Caleb wants him to do something, “I must be asked and not ordered.”

L-R: John (Kirk Kelleykahn,) Simon (Ricco Ross,) share a cheerful moment as Caleb (Shawn Savage) reluctantly participates in the Seder, contributing hardtack to the makeshift Seder plate. Photo: Michael Lamont

 Simon, who is a deeply religious man, realizes it’s Passover and in spite of Caleb’s indifference, insists that a Seder must be conducted.  So, even though there is a lack of the elements that go on a traditional Seder plate, this ritual, conducted by a black man, consisted of pilfered wine and an egg, a piece of hardtack given to solders, and uncooked collard greens, substituting for parsley.  Contributing to the makeshift Seder table, John, in one of his many amusing moments, opens his burlap sack and produces dishes and flatware, which he “borrowed from Mrs. Taylor.”

Delivered with great emotionality, this is one Seder you’ll never forget for it’s goose bump time as Simon sings the Jewish prayers in a thunderous, heart-breaking voice.  This scene is quite compelling and thought provoking as Simon sings “Let My People Go,” illustrating the strong parallels between the ancient Jews’ struggle with Pharaoh and the enslaved blacks.  It also accounts for the bond that has existed between blacks and Jews, especially during the Civil Rights movement.  He also substituted, “What makes this night different from all other nights?” to “What makes this year different from all the other years?”  Despite all the horrors that had taken place for slaves, Simon still has a strong belief in God, which Caleb does not.  

There is much verbal bantering between them with Simon saying such lines as “God is not a fair-weather friend,” or “A Jew talks to God – sometimes we argue with him,” or “Kiss my emancipated ass.”  Caleb declares that he fought to defend his home and looking around at the battered interior, John quips, “It looks like you didn’t do a very good job.”

L-R: John (Kirk Kelleykahn,) Caleb (Shawn Savage,) and Simon (Ricco Ross) listen as John reveals bitter memories of the past. Photo: Michael Lamont

Many philosophical issues are addressed such as John questioning, “Are we slaves or Jews?” * He also brings up the fact that he had been whipped by the whipping man because Mr. DeLeon did not approve of his friendship with his son and that Caleb actually took turns at whipping John as well. In a very dramatic moment, Simon finds out from John that his two girls, Sarah and Elizabeth, have been sold, which has a profound impact on both Caleb and Simon.

At the top of Act II, Caleb breaks the fourth wall and reads a heart-breaking letter that he had sent to Sarah, with whom he is love, and who is carrying his child, describing the stench of human feces and blood on the battlefield and how he longed to go home and read books again.  Simon is devastated when he finds out that President Lincoln has been killed, describing meeting Lincoln and how all the colored people followed him.   He remembered how he bowed his head to Lincoln and that Lincoln bowed back.

R-L: An infuriated Simon forces John to reveal a painful truth which forces him to make a big decision. Photo: Michael Lamont

The acting by this talented cast is outstanding, beginning with the Ricco Ross’ powerful characterization as Simon.  He fills the stage with the gamut of visceral emotions, including his conflicted sense of devotion, which arises when learns that his family has been sold.  Should he stay and guard the home or should he leave and try to find his family?   Kelleykahn’s John is a pivotal character who, at first, seems like comic relief but in due course, reveals shocking proof of the permanent physical scars of the whippings he endured.  Shawn Savage’s strong performance as Caleb is actually the most tragic character as he has lost his faith, his family, his leg, and is now bedridden, beholden to his former slaves to care for him.

The production values are excellent with the action enhanced by Kurtis Bedford’s set design capturing the destruction of the DeLeon’s formerly beautiful home, and is further enhanced by a perfect light design by Ellen Monocroussos, Bill Froggatt’s sound design and Michele Young’s period costumes.

This is must-see production as Matthew Lopez’s original, most compelling script delves deeply into the dynamics between freed slaves and their masters, in this case, their Jewish masters* and the aftermath of emancipation, as seen through the eyes of these three characters.   

*For most people, Jews actually owning slaves might seem incongruous, given their own history of “enslavement,” in one form or another, for centuries. A study commissioned by the Simon Wiesenthal Center revealed that, “Only ten percent of the 150,000 American Jews at the time of the Civil War lived in the South. Southern Jews who owned slaves were overwhelmingly "small holders" and were concentrated in cities, not in the plantation districts containing ninety percent of the enslaved population. For example, there were only four Jews, less than one-tenth of one percent, among the 11,000 Southerners who, in 1830, owned fifty or more slaves.”

Pico Playhouse

10508 Pico Blvd.

Los Angeles, CA 90064

 

Run:  8:00 pm Thursday-Saturday

           3:00pm   Sunday

Closing:  April 13, 2014

Reservations:  www.wcjt.org or

                     323.821.2449

Tickets:  $25-$35

 

                                                     

                                               

 

Published on Feb 17, 2014

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