Preview: NiA Company Brings Back the Complex Slavery Tale The Whipping Man for an April 11-13th Run

11072297_834054930001388_3878248336643888339_o By Haley Sprankle

So often, when the topic of slavery arises, many make the rash assumption that all slave owners were bad and that all slaves hated their masters. It is assumed that slavery is solely an issue of racial prejudice. This clouds our understanding of slavery, all of its complexity and paradoxes, and how it ultimately comes down to incredibly personal and fraught relationships.

Fortunately, Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man, which the NiA Company is performing once again after a 2013 production, breaks that pattern.

The Whipping Man is on the surface about a Jewish Confederate officer that returns home at the end of the Civil War to find two of his former slaves waiting among the ruins,” says Charlie Goodrich, who plays Caleb, the aforementioned office. “However, more specifically, I think that it is simply about a family, one that exists beyond biological or socio-economical barriers.  The three men that appear on stage fight, poke fun, celebrate, and enjoy each other’s company as members of a family do.  No matter the political circumstances, the familial bond still exists between them.”

The play revolves around three characters; Caleb, John (played by Michael Clark), the elder of the two remaining slaves of Caleb’s family, and Simon (played by Darion McCloud), the younger of the two. The three characters celebrate the traditional Jewish holiday of Passover together as they attempt to ascertain the nature of their new relationship.

The Whipping Man addresses how it was possible for believers of a Faith that reveled in its celebrations of freedom could live with, condone, and put into practice an institution that vehemently juxtaposes itself against what they believed in the first place,” Goodrich explains. “Foremost, the play takes place during Passover in April of 1865.  The Jewish Festival of Passover commemorates the Israelites exodus from their enslavement in Egypt.  The three characters celebrate Passover with a Seder meal not long after the two former slaves were freed.  Throughout the dialogue leading up to this meal, various characters address what it meant to exist in the Jewish Faith as slaveholder and slave, and how this existence proved to be sometimes problematic in their understanding of this faith.”

Aside from the religious aspect, the play also calls into question not only the humanity of the situation the characters face, but the humanity of each character.

“Playing the aforementioned Confederate soldier has created an interesting crossroads between my personal feelings and the history of my family in this state,” confesses Goodrich. “It’s no secret that I’m a pretty liberal individual who has not always felt at home in a state that has historically been primarily conservative.  So, it’s no shocker that I went into the production thinking that a Confederate soldier would probably be a total 180 from myself.  However, a portion of my Grandmother’s family has been in this state since the 1690’s.  Towards the end of the 18th century, a portion of them moved from the Lowcountry to York County.  Most of this land, near the town of McConnells, is farm country, and my ancestors owned and ran plantations.  Coming across some of their wills in my ancestral research years ago, I discovered that they were slave owners.”

“This discovery got me to thinking: while I am liberal now, how would I have thought 150 years ago?  While I, in no way, support slavery or oppression, would I have gone along with my family then or rebelled against them? It’s so easy for me to judge slaveholders now, but how do I know what my ancestors in the same situation were thinking? Did they like owning slaves or was it just Southern tradition that they were observing?  To make a long story short, researching my ancestors has opened me up to approaching Caleb without bias.  He’s just a man, and like every other man, he has strengths and weaknesses as well as assets and flaws.  He makes mistakes and is faced with a lot of the same life decisions that exist to this day. I’ve even been able to find parts of myself within him, and vice versa. Becoming Caleb has proven to be not just a fascinating and rewarding experience, but a relevant one as well.”

Throughout the production, the cast and crew have partnered with Historic Columbia, Columbia Commemorates, One Columbia, and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia in tandem with the end of Historic Columbia’s Burning of Columbia celebration that began in February.

“Partnering with all of these institutions has been highly beneficial, most especially in bringing in different audiences to see our show.  Columbia Commemorates and Historic Columbia will bring in history buffs; One Columbia will bring in artists; while Unitarian Universalist will bring in an entire congregation of people that are curious to see the play that will be produced in their sanctuary.  Unitarian Universalist also used to be a synagogue, and performing the piece there will add to the atmosphere of the play.  Furthermore, all of our rehearsals have been at the Unitarian church as well, and the staff and members there could not have been more kind, receptive, and helpful. It has been a pleasure to work with them in such close proximity,” Goodrich says.

So now we ask, what did it mean to be a slave? What did it mean to be a slave owner? What does it mean to be a family?

With some intriguing answers to such questions, The Whipping Man runs April 11-13 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia. Tickets can be purchased through reservations@historiccolumbia.org or at the door.

“I hope the audience will leave with a stronger insight into what it meant to be a slave or a slaveholder at the time of the Civil War,” Goodrich concludes. “Also, I hope audience members leave with a better understanding of what it truly means to be a ‘slave.’  The word is not, for a lack of a better phrase, all ‘black and white.’  There are countless ways that people can be enslaved or enslave themselves, and the playwright does an astute job of bringing up this issue.”

Timely, relevant, and thought-provoking - a review of the NiA Company production of David Mamet's "Race" - by Jillian Owens

race

David Mamet is a playwright that has no problem leaving you feeling uncomfortable.  The NiA Company  production at the Richard and Debbie Cohn Trustus Side Door Theatre of his play, Race , is no exception.  Mamet is known for his dark, fast-paced dialogue and sinister plots.  Characters deceive and manipulate each other, all in a struggle for power.  They aren’t motivated by a desire to do what’s good or right per se, but by a desire to win.

(L-R) Nathan Dawson, Ericka, Darion McCloud, HArrison Saunders; photo by Race opens Thursday, April 10th Shows on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays start at 8pm. The Sunday matinee on April  13th  will be at 3:00pm. The doors and box office open thirty minutes prior to curtain,  and all Trustus Side Door tickets are $20 for general admission and $15 for students.  Reservations can be made by calling the Trustus Box Office at (803) 254-9732, and  tickets may be purchased online at www.trustus.org .  The Richard and Debbie Cohn Trustus Side Door Theatre is located at 520 Lady Street,  behind the Gervais St. Publix. Parking is available on Lady Street and on Pulaski Street.  The Trustus Side Door Theatre entrance is through the glass doors on the Huger St. side  of the building.    For more information or reservations call the box office Tuesdays through Saturdays 1-6  pm at 803-254-9732. Visit www.trustus.org for all show information and season info. PHOTOS BY: Rob Sprankle

The setup of Race is simple.  Three lawyers are defending a white man for an alleged crime against a black woman.  One of the partners is a self-made black man named Henry Brown (played by Darion McCloud).  He is juxtaposed by the slick, snarky, and white Jack Lawson (played by Harrison Saunders).  And because the issues brought up by sex are just as interesting as race, they are joined by their third partner, Susan (played by Ericka Wright), who happens to be black.

The brutal one upmanship that is so common in a Mamet play is more subtle in Race.  There is a level of camaraderie and respect among Brown, Lawson, and Susan (curiously, the only character without a last name).  Usually, when watching a Mamet play, I feel disturbed.  His characters are usually so shockingly sociopathic that you can’t help but feel squeamish.  They seem capable of anything.  The characters in Race don’t quite reach this level.  This would be fine if his characters were written in such a way that they’re given somewhere to go developmentally, but they aren’t.  The language is fast and edgy, with plenty of racial and sexual epithets to keep the audience on its toes – but none of the character’s actions seem all that surprising, and this makes establishing suspense difficult.

race2Race feels like an exercise in how our prejudices affect our perception of reality.  Was Susan offered her position because she was a woman and black?  Does Lawson truly believe is client is innocent?  Is Brown afraid to voice his own doubts about the innocence of his client out of fear of seeming racially biased himself?  Are any of these people self-aware enough to be concerned about any of these things?

race3As I said, this is a difficult script, and in my opinion not necessarily Mamet’s best.  Director Heather McCue could have gone with a much easier play, but this is not what the NiA Company is about.  They seek to challenge their audience and themselves, which is commendable.  This puts a great deal of pressure on the actors.  They were all very good, but the text they’re working with doesn’t do them any favors.  McCloud is the most explorative actor in this show as Henry Brown, who is both believable and compelling.   Saunders is quick and cunning as Lawson, but there are moments where he perhaps could have made the choice to give his character moments of weakness that would have made Race much more suspenseful.  The same can be said of Wright’s Susan.  As she never seems to reach a point where she’s in serious danger of losing anything, whether emotionally or professionally, I found it difficult to feel much suspense or surprise at her actions.   Nathan Dawson plays Charles Strickland, a rich and arrogant man who may or may not be a rapist.  Dawson, an Australian, opted for an American accent for this show, although not altogether successfully.  Nevertheless, I commend him for offering moments of vulnerability that left me feeling uncomfortably sympathetic for his character.

The small black box space of the Side Door is completely ideal for this type of small production that takes on some very large issues.  Race is a timely and relevant work that if nothing else, will encourage a lively discussion between you and your friends after the show.

~ Jillian Owens

Race runs for four more performances, April 16-19.  The doors and box office open thirty minutes prior to curtain, and all Trustus Side Door tickets are $20 for general admission and $15 for students. Reservations can be made by calling the Trustus Box Office at (803) 254-9732, and tickets may be purchased online at www.trustus.org . The Richard and Debbie Cohn Trustus Side Door Theatre is located at 520 Lady Street, behind the Gervais St. Publix. Parking is available on Lady Street and on Pulaski Street. The Trustus Side Door Theatre entrance is through the glass doors on the Huger St. side of the building.  For more information or reservations call the box office Tuesdays through Saturdays 1-6 pm at 803-254-9732. Visit www.trustus.org for all show information and season info.

"The Whipping Man" - Jillian Owens reviews the NiA Company/Off Off Lady Series production at the CMFA ArtSpace

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. niA

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?”

“Things.”

“Whose?”

“Mine now.”

“What are you going to do with it?”

“Own it.”

“Why?”

“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.