At the tail-end of the Civil War, a weary and wounded Confederate soldier hobbles up to the front door of his family home in Richmond, Va., enters, and collapses in a heap.
So begins “The Whipping Man,” a jarring play by Matthew Lopez about the complex and shifting relationship between Jews and African-Americans in the wake of emancipation and beyond.
The show stars Stan Klimecko as Caleb, the soldier who deserted the battlefield just before Lee surrendered at Appomattox. He has returned to an estate abandoned by everyone except two of his family’s former slaves, Simon (Dee LaMonte Perry) and John (Greg Howze). The relationship between the former slaves and one of their former masters is complicated by persistent loyalties and emotional ties, old animosities, and the new and loaded prospect of “freedom.”
The play itself, though peppered with problematic dialogue and occasionally too literally preachy, is a smartly structured attempt to amplify the inherent connection between Jews and blacks – as it pertains to persecution, to struggle, to faith. It takes place during Passover, a time set aside to reflect on the pain and struggle of the Jewish people and to appreciate what is a relatively newfound freedom. In this context, the connections between the Jewish and African-American struggles could hardly be more evident, and Lopez mines them productively.
Perry commands the show from the start. His performance begins with an ideal balance of sternness, sensitivity and humor, but that balance breaks down, by the play’s second act, into a raw and wrenching display of emotional pain. The self-assurance of the actor in this case plays directly into the self-assurance of the character. When the scrim between actor and character disappears, so does the scrim between playacting and reality.
Howze gives an alternately humorous and pained performance as the aggrieved former slave John, Caleb’s equal in age but not – and though Caleb takes pains to deny it – in society. He infuses the role with a kind of boyish mischief, which makes his horrifying recounting of his visits to the titular whipping man all the more difficult to bear.
Klimecko, for his part, does his level best to sink his teeth into a role that seems slightly outside his comfort zone. His wise-guy accent sometimes creeps into the Southern affectation the role requires, which makes suspension of disbelief a more difficult task. Even so, he is often affecting as the disgraced Confederate soldier whom Lopez means to represent both the old guard and the new.
The play is filled with potent resonances with the modern age.
The conversations we are having about race are remarkably similar in some ways to the conversation during Reconstruction. Which is to say: either loaded with vitriol or nonexistent because we prefer to ignore the problem.
The unexpected subject matter alone makes Lopez’s play a worthy addition to the literature of Jewish and African-American relations. It helps that Lopez gives audiences plenty of deft writing and makes a series of historical connections that, while perhaps obvious to some, have long been hidden in plain sight for many Americans.
The play becomes far too explicit, however, when Perry’s character directly invokes the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. and inserts passages from the all-too-apt spiritual “Go Down Moses.”
The playgoing public might indeed be due for a reminder of these connections, but it deserves a little more credit for its intelligence.
These are minor issues. Lopez reminds us that it will be many more centuries before the screams of black slaves rising up from 1860s Virginia – like the screams of the Jewish slaves at the wrong end of the lash in ancient Egypt – will fade from our cultural traditions.
In this play, those screams resolve themselves into a strained harmony that by its very singing helps to soothe the suffering of their shared history and points the way forward.
“The Whipping Man”
Three stars (Out of four)
Drama presented through Nov. 11 in the Maxine and Robert Seller Theatre, Jewish Community Center, 2640 N. Forest Road, Getzville. 888-718-4253 or www.jewishrepertorytheatre.com.