ArtsCenter Stage presents ‘The Whipping Man’

Oct. 17, 2013 @ 01:50 PM

In one of the final scenes in Matthew Lopez’s play “The Whipping Man,” Simon (played by Phillip Smith), a former slave, is preparing to leave Richmond to search for his wife and child. As Simon prepares to leave, he looks at ex-slave John (played by Alphonse Nicholson), and Caleb DeLeon (played by Victor Rivera), the wounded son of a plantation owner, and says, “Looks like the two of you need each other.”
That exchange represents one of many ways in which Lopez’s play examines the complex human relationships that grew out of slavery, and how Americans still struggle to understand those relationships. ArtsCenter Stage will present “The Whipping Man” beginning today, with performances continuing through Oct. 27.
Lopez’s play is set in immediate post-Civil War Richmond. Caleb is the son of a wealthy Jewish plantation owner. Simon, the eldest character in this play, and John, both grew up in the DeLeon family. To take shelter from the war, Caleb’s father has left the plantation with Simon’s wife and their daughter. Caleb returns to Richmond to find the family place devastated.
He reunites with Simon and John, who treat Caleb’s war wound. It is Passover, and the three celebrate a makeshift Seder meal with the food that is available. Simon, John and Caleb are remembering their past, and working out a new relationship. Simon tells Caleb, “What you are telling me, you ought to be asking me.” John, who was Caleb’s childhood playmate, asks, “What do I call you now? Sir? Master?” Caleb replies, “You never called me that.”
Playing the role of Simon is “a tug-of-war with emotions that are connected with the playwright’s words, the scene, its place in time,” Smith said. He compares the historical time Simon faces to when President Obama was elected – a time of economic uncertainty and hope. “Parallel that with Simon’s life and the destruction of the Civil War …. There is a part of him that is torn that it will probably never be the same again, but look at the opportunity in front of us. So he is an emotional roller coaster,” Smith said.
Caleb and John are intensely devout, and can quote passages from the Torah at length. John frequently debates Caleb using passages from scripture, and Caleb reminds him that “you have my mother to thank for that,” for teaching him to read.
Simon’s dilemma is that he earned a certain level of status in the DeLeon house, and was shielded from some of the brutality of slavery, Smith said. “I think he is a man of faith who says, we have endured this hardship, but there is a better day to come. … He is giving the family the DeLeons the benefit of the doubt.” By the end of play he understands that the love Caleb says he has for the slaves is seen “through a warped glass.”
At end of play “it’s almost like nothing was resolved all these years. That’s what I think is powerful about the piece,” Smith said.
“The Whipping Man” is the first in three thematically-related plays ArtsCenter Stage will present this season. In December, the ArtsCenter will present Paula Vogel’s “A Civil War Christmas,” and in May, August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean.” All of the plays are related in some way to the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Last year, ArtsCenter Stage presented plays that had historical themes and settings. Jeri-Lynn Schulke, director of ArtsCenter Stage, took that precedent and wondered if she could present three thematically-related plays. The Emancipation Proclamation provided that common thread. “This is the first time I’m trying this. I hope that it can work,” Schulke said. If the approach works, Schulke said the 2013-2014 season may look to the centennial of World War I as inspiration.

WANT TO GO?

WHAT: “The Whipping Man,” by Matthew Lopez
WHEN: Friday (Oct. 18), Saturday (Oct. 19) and Sunday (Oct. 20); and Oct. 24-27. Performances are at 8 p.m., 3 p.m. Oct. 20 and 27.
WHERE: The ArtsCenter, 300-G E. Main St., Carrboro
ADMISSION: Tickets range from $10 to $16. To purchase, call 919-929-2787 or visit www.artscenterlive.org.