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Black Rep's "The Whipping Man": Big Questions, Emotional Depth

Black Rep Whipping Man 14-L.jpg
(Courtesy of Stewart Goldstein)

I appreciate every day I learn something new. A little over 1% of all Southern slaveholders were Jewish and they treated their slaves the same as everyone else. The Whipping Man, opening at the St Louis Black Rep, combines this fact with an intriguing story of faith, family and freedom. The Whipping Man, by Matthew Lopez takes place in April of 1865, after Lincoln has freed the slaves, after the South has surrendered, and during Passover. That’s relevant because the returning Confederate soldier, Caleb, is Jewish, as are his family slaves, Simon and John. It’s also relevant because Passover starts this week and Jews all over the world will be discussing freedom and faith and family.

Ron Himes plays Simon, Justin Ivan Brown is Caleb DeLeon and Ronald L Conner is John. The three men represent a family living in the wreck of the DeLeon family home. The rest of the family, Caleb’s and Simon’s, has been sent away to safety. There is a humor about Simon and John, which underscore the change that is happening in the world around them. They are willing to tend to Caleb because he is hurt, but they let him know he “should be asking, not telling.” All three men have secrets, too. Secrets that kept me intrigued. The actors form an excellent ensemble and craft complex characters.

Lopez is adept at weaving together the celebration of Passover, the freeing of the slaves, the Jewish tradition of “asking questions of God,” the idea of “home,” and putting at the heart of the story, a family, connected in more ways than they know. There is a connection between the men based on their faith, even when it is shaken; it is familiar and comforting. There is also a connection through the cycle of time, the Jews were freed but left to wander, the slaves were freed and left to find new homes with whatever family might remain. Only the third scene felt overlong, the rest of the play had good pacing under the direction of Ed Smith.

Designers Tim Case (set) Mark Wilson (lights) and Robin Weatherall (sound) create a melted ruin, barely surviving the human and elemental violence, yet maintaining its gracious beauty within the candlelight and lightning strikes. Tim Case also designed The Piano Lesson earlier this year and in each, he uses projection to emphasize both the burden and the comfort of living with your ancestors on a daily basis. Wilson and Weatherall put together a storm-scape that almost explodes. Lou Bird’s costumes are appropriate with small forays into fun with John’s “acquisitions.”

This production is an example of what the Black Rep does best, exploring large societal questions with great emotional depth. The Whipping Man continues at the Grandel Theatre through April 13th.

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