BY TIFFANY PARKS / AJT //
Matthew Lopez’s play “The Whipping Man” has electrified audiences all across the nation – quite an extraordinary feat for a relatively new work and playwright. One of the biggest reasons for the play’s success is the rarity of its subject matter: former Jewish slaveholders and slaves forced to redefine faith and freedom after the Civil War.
“I was fascinated when I read the play,” said the director of the Alliance Theatre’s current production, Alexander Greenfield. “I’m Jewish, but I had never contended with or thought about slavery from the aspect of a Jewish slaveholder. I am excited and blessed to have the opportunity to tell this important story.”
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The gist of the story is that Caleb DeLeon, a Jewish Confederate soldier, has returned to his ragged plantation home where his two former slaves, Simon and John, await him. Anger and frustration are kindled when they reflect on dark, secretive memories.
“The facts are that Jews who had the monetary means [such as the character of Caleb DeLeon] followed the customs and mores of their wealthy white counterparts, including owning slaves,” said Greenfield.
Long before the Civil War, a small and thriving Jewish immigrant population existed in the American South. The region surprisingly offered a more welcoming and prosperous lifestyle for Jews than many Northern states like Massachusetts, which had a history of anti-Semitism dating back to Colonial times.
Therefore, many Jewish Confederates fought and died in order to pay homage to their new country and to defend their Southern homeland from what they considered to be “invaders.”
But beyond historical context, another aspect of the character’s identities – faith – is explored, and with many an ironic twist.
For example: The DeLeon slaves were brought up in the Jewish faith. One scene opens on a stormy night to reveal that ex-slaves Simon and John, along with their ex-master Caleb, have prepared a meager Passover seder.
Greenfield points out that this Passover seder was to have occurred on April 10, 1865, a day after General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox.
“The paradigm shift of Jews celebrating their freedom from Egypt and blacks being free from slavery is so rich for exploration,” said Greenfield.
The three characters in the play realize the dynamics of this irony, and angst and frustration rise to a fever pitch on stage.
Additionally, the setting of the story acts as a ripe metaphor for the theme of freedom. On DeLeon’s ruined and ransacked plantation, freedom for the slave is lonely, scary, empty and mysterious.
“Freedom to the character John means that he has the right to own things, so he goes and loots and pillages in the surrounding plantations,” said Greenfield.
On the other hand, the wiser and older Simon explains to John and Caleb that they must break their deeply embedded mental shackles and treat each other as equals instead of helpless slave and superior master if they want to survive in their new world.
The theme is truly universal, to the point that although the characters are African American and Jewish, to Greenfield the ethnicity of the characters is secondary to the goal of telling an authentic American story.
“The thing the play does well is not to judge any of the characters. They all have their faults,” said Greenfield. “These are three people who lived during extraordinary times in the U.S., dealing with these raw emotions. I think the audience will leave the theater with a deeper understanding of faith and freedom that still reverberates in today’s society.”
Greenfield has nothing but praise for playwright Lopez, for whom the “The Whipping Man” is his first professionally-produced work. Lopez – of Puerto Rican and Polish-Russian heritage – knows that a person doesn’t have to be a certain color or gender to tell an important American story and also that American slavery is a subject that is better understood and realized from different perspectives.
“Look at the success that Matthew has had with his first play; he has a very promising playwriting future ahead of him, and I look forward to seeing his future works,” said Greenfield.
Greenfield himself is also quite accomplished for one so young. After graduating from the Tisch School of the Performing Arts in 2010, he served as assistant director on “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” with Tony Award-winning director Doug Hughes at the Roundabout Theater.
Then, in 2011, Greenfield directed the musical “Sweeney Todd” at Fabrefaction Theater and in 2012 won the Suzi Bass Award for outstanding director of a musical.
He is currently directing the off-Broadway production of “My Name is Asher Lev” as well as “The Whipping Man,” which audiences can appreciate at the Alliance Theatre’s Hertz Stage through April 7.
It is guaranteed to be a riveting, unforgettable and vital American story.