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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, April 12, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 15
Truth and consequences - The Whipping Man reminds us that slavery's scars aren't just physical
Arts & Entertainment
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Truth and consequences - The Whipping Man reminds us that slavery's scars aren't just physical

by Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

THE WHIPPING MAN
TAPROOT THEATRE
Through April 27


William Hall, Jr. gives a tour-de-force performance at Taproot Theatre this month, as he stars in a tense production of The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez. He's joined on stage with Ryan Childers and Tyler Trerise in this ensemble play set during 1865 in the Deep South.

In a surprising aspect, the play focuses on a ruined Virginia estate belonging to a Jewish family who owned slaves. Lopez heard about that historical fact and it sparked his imagination, becoming an Off-Broadway award-winner. In 2011, Lopez received the John Gassner Memorial Playwriting Award from the Outer Critics Circle.

Hall plays Simon, a now-emancipated slave who is keeping vigilant over the family estate as everyone else has left. Caleb, the son of the household, limps in from his sojourn as a rebel soldier, with a bullet hole and a gangrenous leg. There is little food and only shambles left of what was a substantial manor. John, a younger ex-slave, also returns, after disappearing into the confused society outside the door.

LOST IN A NEW WORLD
'Reconstruction' was what they called the tumultuous period immediately following the fall of the Confederacy, with emancipated slaves uncertain of where to go or how to earn a living, and former slaveowners uncertain about how to manage their labor costs or to interact with the newly 'equal' Blacks around them. The play masterfully conveys that confusion among the three characters, as Caleb reflexively starts to order Simon around. 'You must ask me to do something now,' Simon instructs Caleb.

John takes advantage of the confusion of the ruined town to 'liberate' various items from mansions abandoned by their owners, including an increasingly fancy array of clothing as the play proceeds. But John's confusion is deep, as he tries to figure out how to leave town without any money, while harboring a secret that makes him a marked man.

But from the start, the most intriguing aspect of the play is that Simon prays in Hebrew, having embraced the family's religion as his own. As they determine what the date is, they realize that it is the Jewish holiday of Passover (Pesach), and Simon decides they must have a seder, or ritual feast.

He improvises substitutes for the required ritual symbols. Matzah, a cracker made of unleavened flour and water, is replaced by hardtack. A lamb bone, the symbol of God's hand protecting the Hebrew families, is represented by a bone from the now-dead horse that carried Caleb home.

EMOTIONALLY COMPLEX
Directed by Scott Nolte, this tightly focused play reveals the complex relationships built among these characters over their years together. The subject brings emotions up in the audience, which is also asked to reconsider their understanding of the men as secrets from the present and the past peel back the layers of the onion of their society.

It's appropriate for children of about 10 and up, although there is a rather harrowing scene where Simon and John prepare to cut off Caleb's leg to save his life. There's a lot to discuss afterward, if you enjoy probing plays more deeply. For more information, go to www.taproottheatre.org or call (206) 781-9707.

Discuss your opinions with sgncritic@gmail.com or go to www.facebook.com/SeattleTheaterWriters.

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