Friday, March 22, 2013

Review: (Toronto) The Whipping Man

Thomas Olajide, Sterling Jarvis and Brett Donahue (photo credit: Keith Barker)

Spinning Slavery
HGJT and Obsidian tackle little known history
by Gregory Bunker

Written by Matthew Lopez and first produced in 2006, The Whipping Man is an excellent production that puts a deeply ironic spin on slavery in America. The play is co-produced by the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company and Obsidian Theatre, and draws special attention to the paradox of Jewish slave-owning in America. It explores the notion that a religion with the history and pride of escaping slavery could be kosher with imposing such chains on others. And it is the gobsmacking awkwardness of reconciling this irony in the newly emancipated South that makes for great theatre at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. 

With the help of innumerable bottles of whisky, they begin to open up and clean the festering wound of slavery.

It is 1865, and the American Civil War has just ended. Confederate Caleb DeLeon (Brett Donahue) has returned home, injured, after four years of fighting. His home is dilapidated from war (fantastic set and costumes courtesy of Sean Mulcahy) and occupied only by Simon (Sterling Jarvis)—the former, long-time slave of Caleb’s father. Simon immediately tends to Caleb’s ruined leg, though the relationship between them is testy as a result of the war’s uneasy conclusion. Then John (Thomas Olajide)—another former slave of the DeLeon family—appears and exposes the underlying tension of the former master-slave dynamic with Caleb. Each character finds himself in a vulnerable situation, and since the end of the war coincides with Passover, Simon attempts to bring the three of them back together under faith and with promises of their new Moses, Abraham Lincoln. (Simon and John grew up Jewish as a result of living in the Jewish DeLeon household.) But the world has changed, and so have their relationships with each other. With the help of innumerable bottles of whisky, they begin to open up and clean the festering wound of slavery. 

The acting in this play was remarkable. Caleb’s searing pain, John’s swagger, and the willful trust and hope of Simon were all evident in their stage presence and voice. Aside from the excellent production and acting offered by the play, what prevented me from becoming completely connected were moments when I was reminded that I was not Jewish, or at least not Yiddish-speaking. While the Passover Seder scene is well-explained, there are times when brief snippets of Yiddish are used—and when others in the audience appear to be impressed by this, I have to wonder what I’m missing. In this way, the play can at times tread the line between being for the benefit of a broader audience with a commentary about identity, and being for a more specific audience with a commentary about the nature of Judaism.

The Whipping Man is a thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking play about overlapping identities, their complexities, paradoxes, incompatibilities, and their resolutions. For its polish and novel, well-written story, The Whipping Man is a drama to be seen.

Two hours with one 15-minute intermission.
The Whipping Man runs to April 14 at Toronto Centre for the Arts.

Read also director Philip Akin's first-person piece about this production.

1 comment:

  1. I saw the wonderful off-Broadway production a couple of years ago. This is equally as superb. Go see!


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