Theater J’s powerful and sizzling production of Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man, directed with sensitivity and heart by Jennifer L. Nelson, is a theatrical experience you will never forget. I left the theatre emotionally drained and at the same time elated that I had witnessed three moving performances by three exceptional actors – Alexander Strain, David Emerson Toney, and Mark Hairston. It’s the ‘Must See’ of the DC theater season.
And having this masterpiece performed in The DCJCC’s Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater with a large Jewish audience – including myself – this The Whipping Man adds another level of meaning and ‘Tam” (Hebrew for ‘flavor’) for me that I had not felt in other productions of the show I had seen elsewhere.
Since I recently celebrated Passover, this powerful play reminded me that slavery and the freedom granted to the slaves in the United States and and Egypt shared similar evils, tribulations, and lessons. And as three men conduct a Passover Seder – I was reminded – as I am every year when non-Jewish friends are invited to my and my friends’ Seders – that we are all brothers fighting for the same causes: justice, acceptance, and understanding, and that the fight, unfortunately, still goes on.
It’s powerful stuff and The Whipping Man provides it in buckets.
Caleb DeLeon (Alexander Strain) returns home to Richmond after serving in the Confederate Army after General Robert E. Lee has surrendered. He finds his home in shambles and has a horrible leg injury. His family has left and he doesn’t know why. Still living in what is now a ‘shell’ of his home is Simon (David Emerson Toney), who raised him, and John (Mark Hairston), a slave who is the same age as Caleb, who brings home a slew of items and food that he has looted from several plantations.
Suffice to say that there are many twists and turns and family skeletons and secrets are revealed – and we learn about their experiences with The Whipping Man, but I will not reveal any of these because I want you to experience them in the theatre. What I will give away is that Lopez has written a brilliant script – it’s a roller coaster of emotions – and Nelson’s firm hand humanizes these characters – all three raised as Jews – and we feel for them and empathize with them, and we get angry at them. We learn that there are many wounds that still need healing, and we witness new wounds that are opened and hope that these wounds will also heal.
Which brings us to The Seder. The Hebrew word Seder means ‘order’ and the order in these three characters’ lives has been thrown into chaos and disorder by war, racial injustice and personal issues that still eat away at the core of these three men’s lives. But it is the beauty (I still have ‘chills’ that I experienced during the Seder scene) and pride of watching Caleb, John, and Simon leave the hurt behind and unite as one as holiday candles are lit, as they read from the Haggadah about the Exodus from Egypt, chant the Kiddush (Sanctification), recite prayers, and read from the Book of Exodus about the freedom that their ancestors were granted as they left Egypt. It immediately forces them to evaluate their newly-granted freedom signed by ‘Father Abraham’ – President Abraham Lincoln – who has just been assassinated.
What can you say about these amazing performances? Alexander Strain’s cries of pain and desperation and regret are so real. Mark Hairston’s performance is filled with frustration and fear and at times, he is very funny. David Emerson Toney burns up the stage with his anger, and caring and frustration, and when he sings the spiritual “Go Down Moses” at The Seder with his gorgeous and thunderous Paul Robeson-like voice, he glows. It’s not only a spine-tingling moment, but it’s also earth-shaking. I will never forget it.
Lopez’s script is also filled with humor and many laughs (for me there were many ‘nervous’ laughs), and Strain, Hairston and Toney have great comic timing, and all their funny lines land.
A special congrats to Scenic Designer Dan Conway who creates a rundown Southern house with a backdrop with a effective photograph on it, a loveseat, a wooden floor, a chandelier, and a large door with broken wooden slats. Matthew Nielson provides crisp and clear sound and special effects including rain falling and soldiers marching. Nancy Schertler’s lighting sets the different moods and emotions of the show perfectly, while Ivania Stack’s provides simple but effective costumes.
The Whipping Man is theatre at its best. With performances that will move you, make you laugh, shudder and cry, do not pass over the opportunity to see this monumental work given a first-rate production by the courageous Theater J.
Running Time: Two hours including a 15 minute intermission.
The Whipping Man plays through May 20, 2o012 at Theater J’s Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater at the DC Jewish Community Center – 1529 Sixteenth Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.
Watch and listen to Paul Robeson sing “Go Down Moses.”
Read Amanda Gunther’s review of Centerstage‘s production of The Whipping Man.