On April 4, 1865, Abraham Lincoln strode into Richmond, Va., to survey the damage the Confederate capital had sustained during the final weeks of the Civil War and to inspect the abandoned headquarters of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
Lincoln's visit to Richmond, just 10 days before he was assassinated, will be explicitly retold in Steven Spielberg's upcoming film about the 16th president. It also serves as a narrative backdrop to Matthew Lopez's play "The Whipping Man," which explores the relationship between a wounded Jewish Confederate soldier from Richmond and two of his family's former slaves, who are also Jewish. The show opened Thursday night in the Jewish Repertory Theatre's Maxine and Robert Seller Theatre in Getzville and runs through Nov. 11.
"The only evidence Lincoln ever saw of the good that he did was that one day in Richmond when he was surrounded by thousands of emancipated slaves," said Jewish Repertory Theatre co-founder and "Whipping Man" director Saul Elkin. Though the play only touches on those events, he added, they help to set the scene for a story that delves into the complex relationships between Jews and former slaves in the aftermath of the war.
The play, set during Passover, was first produced at the Manhattan Theatre Club last year and has since become a popular choice at regional theaters across the country. Elkin, who saw the production in New York, was immediately intrigued by the play's attempt to broach a subject that few other playwrights have considered.
"One of the former slaves is young, and he grew up with the white character in the play. They did what kids do, and here they are in a new relationship," Elkin said. "It's not just the fact of the coincidence and Passover and the end of the Civil War, but it raises other issues that have to do with the relationship with people who were slaveholders and people who were not, and the presence of a Jewish household in the South, about which very little is known."
This past season, the Jewish Repertory Theatre mounted Alfred Uhry's "Driving Miss Daisy," another play that tangentially examined the sometimes strained and sometimes intimate relationships between blacks and Jews in the 20th century. The actor André Braugher, who played one of the former slaves in the original production of "The Whipping Man," said in an interview on the NY 1 television program "On Stage" that he saw a connection between the play and the eventual alliance between blacks and Jews that developed during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
"I see, of course, the roots of this eventual alliance of the civil rights movement and the participation of Jews in that movement, because we're all seeking the same sort of justice here on earth," Braugher said.
The JRT production stars Dee LaMonte Perry and Greg Howze as two former slaves and Stan Klimecko (fresh off a performance as Stanley in Torn Space Theatre's "A Streetcar Named Desire") as the wounded Confederate soldier.
"Some issues never go away," Elkin said. "I'm always on the lookout for issues like that. I love the idea that we can begin our season with a sort of edgy play."
"The Whipping Man"
When: Through Nov. 11
Where: Maxine and Robert Seller Theatre, Jewish Community Center, 2640 N. Forest Road, Getzville
Tickets: $14 to $36
Info: 688-4114 or www.jewishrepertorytheatre.com