‘Whipping Man’ A Powerful Story of Slavery & Salvation (4 Stars)

“The Whipping Man” Written by Matthew Lopez; Directed by Benny Sato Ambush; Presented by special arrangement with Samuel French, Inc. and The New Repertory Theatre at The Arsenal Center for the Arts 200 Dexter Ave, Watertown, MA. Performances through Feb. 16th.

‘The Whipping Man’ is an emotional drama that takes a searingly hard look at the effects of slavery on human beings, and how the institution undermines and distorts the relationships of everyone it touches. It tells the story of three men, one white, two black, coming together at the close of the Civil War on the brink of a new society with new laws that will change their lives and affect them all in very different ways. As we watch their relationships develop on this new, unfamiliar ground, shocking secrets are revealed about the men and their lives.

The play is set in a crumbling mansion in a war-torn Richmond, Virginia in April of 1865. The Civil War has just ended and great areas of the south lie in ruin. Scenic designer Janie E. Howland has put together a grandiose and impressive set at the New Rep Theatre which works to great effect. Complementing the dark, foreboding scenery is the music of composer Dewey Dellay, which wafts in and out of the scenes and is eerie, sometimes bluesy and has a new-age feel to it. The atmospheric tunes are played on traditional American musical instruments like slide-guitar, making the music fit the 19th century setting. Of course Negro spirituals abound, even in this Jewish household.

The characters consist of Simon and John, slaves who work on the DeLeon family plantation and Caleb DeLeon, the plantation owner’s son. Simon, the older, wiser slave has watched the two boys grow up on the plantation, playing and getting into trouble together “like two peas in a pod” as Simon likes to say.

Caleb has returned home from fighting for the Confederacy where he was badly injured in the war. He finds his fire-damaged home inhabited only by Simon and John. Simon displays real affection for the wounded young man and tends to his wounds, pressing John to help him through the sometimes grisly medical procedures.

In The Whipping Man, author Matthew Lopez explores not only the shame and demoralizing effects of slavery but the sense of responsibility all men must possess, regardless of their station in society. Simon, the older slave, advises John, a mischievous young man, to make amends with a white neighbor who is a witness to a wrong-doing of John’s. Simon tells him “Make it right…You are living in this world now, not just serving in it.”

The DeLeon family is Jewish and they raise their slaves in the tradition as well. Now Caleb has returned from the war having lost his faith and Simon, unable to comprehend this, tries to bolster the ex-slave owner’s spirit. John, however is more concerned with how Caleb’s family can live in the faith but own other men, in particular fellow Jews, as the Torah specifically forbids. He asks Caleb if they are brothers in the faith, or still just heathens.

The great Johnny Lee Davenport manages to play Simon as a good-natured, proud and spiritual man. He comes off more like a compassionate pragmatist stuck in a bad situation, rather than a subservient Uncle Tom. Simon just wants to carry on the good traditions like his religion while leaving the bad ones behind.

John on the other hand, played to energetic perfection by Keith Mascoll, is a sly, humorous and very intelligent idealist who has taught himself to read and then uses that ability to cite passages that criticize the evils of the slave life he was born into. Hot-headed yet wily, he must hide the fact that he can read, as it was illegal for slaves to be literate. John hides behind a mask of simple tom-foolery but his actions belie his passions as we find he has been punished in the past for smuggling books to other like-minded slaves. Throughout the performance, Mr. Mascoll plays the multifaceted role with both humor and passion, nearly stealing the show at times with his delivery and wonderful sense of timing.

Jesse Hinton, another locally-based talent (currently teaching acting at Brandeis University) passionately plays the tortured Caleb DeLeon. Caleb’s life has been undone and his home as he knows it is no more. In the end he will face even more disturbing truths as secrets are revealed.

The Whipping Man makes one ponder the complexities of our human nature. Friendship, religion, freedom and responsibility all come under close scrutiny in this gritty and emotional yet at times funny tale of a group of people at an historic moment in time harshly effected by the choices made by them and for them. Well worth seeing. Mature audience suggested due to graphic scenes and language. For more info, go to http://www.newrep.org/productions/the-whipping-man/