“When Moses was in Egypt land, let my people go…” The haunting words of this recognizable Passover hymn take on new meaning in the highly acclaimed dramatic play by Matthew Lopez, “The Whipping Man.”
Hard as it is to believe, over 100 years before Jews were at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement alongside their African American brethren, many were among the slave-owning population of the Confederate states. “The Whipping Man” draws the ironic parallels between these two groups of people — freed black slaves in the South at the end of the Civil War and Jews who, thousands of years prior, were themselves slaves in Egypt.
The play opens with Caleb, an injured Jewish Confederate soldier, returning from battle to his war-torn home in Richmond, Va. While the rest of the family seems to have gone missing, two of the longtime family-owned slaves — now emancipated — are all who remain to greet him. As they observe Passover together, recalling the Jewish exodus from Egypt, their shared pasts and “family secrets” call into question the futures of all three men.
“We read about the play about two years ago and found it absolutely fascinating,” said Taproot Theatre’s artistic director Scott Nolte. “As the story is told you have to bring out the rest of the skeletons of what’s going on in the family and layers of betrayal and injustice that have taken place.”
For Nolte, the lasting moral the show offers is “you’re really not going to be free until you recognize the injustices. And once you recognize them, then you can begin that reconciliation and forgiveness process.”
Nolte feels the play pays homage to the genuineness of Simon, the elder slave. “It pays a great deal of respect to the depth of his faith, in spite of the war, in spite of the death of Abraham Lincoln — Father Abraham, the American Moses. Despite his understanding that, though he thought his owners treated him like family, and he thought of them as family, that was just another layer of betrayal,” said Nolte.
The house (which is the setting of the play) is in itself reflective of the situation between the men on stage. The violent and devastating end of the war has left the house burned, shelled, and looted. The three men, essentially, are faced with the fact that nothing about the way they used to live is safe. They have to leave there and move forward — they cannot stay in this house. The same can be said of their relationships with each other.
Though there are several points at which Simon — the self-proclaimed leader of the seder — adapts the story of Passover to his own experience and the recent events (the surrender, death of Lincoln, and so on), he holds true to a traditional Jewish Passover ceremony. The men scrape together what they can in their dire situation, but they make it work. It becomes apparent to the audience that regardless of what has gone on outside the walls of their home, the men find it utterly imperative that this tradition is observed and honored.
“We have three really terrific actors that are really dedicated to it, which makes a huge difference,” said Nolte about the stirring performances by Ryan Childers, William Hall, Jr. and Tyler Trerise.
Nolte points out that, even though our response to the issue of slavery in the United States is often quite disconnected — “because slavery was a long time ago, and ‘it wasn’t my fault’” — there is importance in acknowledging the legacy of that history.
It’s easy to walk away and say, “That was a great story, but it doesn’t apply to me. I live in Seattle, and we’re not racist here.” But Nolte’s hope is that the play will go deeper than that for audience members.
As with all of Taproot Theatre’s productions, patrons who attend Wednesday night performances will have the opportunity to participate in a post-play discussion, which will feature the cast and director.
In addition, a free special event is planned for April 16: “Conversations” will be held in conjunction with the John Perkins Center for Reconciliation, Leadership Training, and Community Development at Seattle Pacific University. Nolte has worked closely with the center throughout the development of the show to help his crew better understand how to relate to the issues of slavery, justice, and human rights, and convey that energy to the audience. The post-play discussion and “Conversations” are opportunities for patrons to delve deeper into some of the topics brought up by this unique story.
Through confronting some of the most unjust and dehumanizing periods of our humanity, we are able to move forward and be truly free, Nolte pointed out.
“This play, in a sense, is all of our stories,” he said.