At the end of the Civil War, a young Jewish soldier (Bobby Bloom) returns to his once-grand plantation in Virginia—now in ruins. The only remaining inhabitants of his childhood home are two of his former slaves, Simon (Darion McCloud) and John (Mario McClean), who were also raised as Jews in the DeLeon home. As they come together to celebrate Passover, secrets are revealed, alliances are severed and forged, and the meaning of freedom is explored.
As newly-free men, Simon and John are now left to discover how to fend for themselves when the only world they’ve known has crumbled around them. Simon, the older and gentler of the two, intends to stay on with the DeLeons as a servant—and to be well-paid for it. John, wild with freedom, loots and ransacks the empty mansions around him.
“What’s all this?”
“What are you going to do with it?”
“Because I can.”
He plans on moving to New York City to make his fortune. But do either of these men really see these dreams as possibilities, or are these just the stories they’ve told themselves in order to cope with the loneliness, hopelessness, and famine of their war-ravaged surroundings?
When Caleb returns in dire need of medical attention, questions of loyalty arise. Why should Caleb expect the help from the men he used to own-- and even have whipped-- now that they are free? It is possible for men of different races to truly be friends when one of the races has been repressed by the other? How can one race with a history of being enslaved justify enslaving another? As these men gather to literally break bread together, these questions are explored. While it’s initially surprising to seeing two black men of Jewish faith in 1865, this isn’t all that strange for the time. The tie-in to their observance of Passover, which commemorates the Exodus, is fitting, but it’s beaten to death (no pun intended) in this play. We get it.
Thankfully, Matthew Lopez’s script is deeper than this over-explored metaphor. The secrets these three men share and keep from each other twist around them, chaining them to their ruined home. While technically all “free” men, none of them can leave. There is no emancipation from the sins of their pasts, and the sense of impending doom almost seems to play a fourth character in this play.
Darion McCloud delivers a beautiful performance as the kind and loyal Simon. You may be familiar with Mario McClean’s work as a local singer/musician. I would have liked to have seen a subtler take on the character of John, whose non-stop angry energy becomes more bombarding than moving at times. Bobby Bloom’s Caleb had a Southern accent that came and went and he yawned noticeably several times. Despite these distractions, Bloom’s performance was still powerful.
The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez is a great fit for the NiA Company, whose mission is to bring actors of all colors and cultures together. As the “Where’s Waldo?” of the Columbia theatre community, it’s challenging to find some of their venues, but the CMFA Artspace houses this show nicely. I recommend sitting a few rows back to overcome the sight line issues of a stage that is too high for the first couple of rows to see well.
Co-directed by Darion McCloud and Heather McCue, The Whipping Man is a thought-provoking story of shame, regret, faith, and redemption.
~ Jillian Owens
The Whipping Man runs through Friday, March 22 at the CMFA ArtSpace at 914 Pulaski Street. Curtain is at 7:30 PM, and tickets may be purchased at the door.