We all know that slave owners fathered children by their slaves. We know that a good number of our Founding Fathers founded families by theirs. Thanks to Ken Burns, we know the personal stories of slaves and soldiers who fought for and against emancipation. There’s never a shortage of movies about the Civil War. Is there a new way to tell those stories?
Playwright Matthew Lopez has found a new angle on the struggle with his Civil War tale of a Jewish family from Virginia whose slaves keep the faith even after they’ve been declared free men. THE WHIPPING MAN (at New Repertory Theatre through Feb. 16th) is set in Janie E. Howland’s eerily resonant, gutted and looted shell of a plantation house where Dewey Dellay’s creaks and moans transport us to the smoking ruins of Richmond, 1865.
Director Benny Sato Ambush has a remarkable cast to breathe humanity into what might have been the stereotypical characters we often see in film and on television: The wounded rebel soldier who finally makes it home, only to find his family gone and the only people left are his former slaves, a young man about his age who finds/steals anything abandoned in nearby mansions and the trusted “jack-of-all-trades” former slave who headed their household.
Johnny Lee Davenport makes the fatherly man both kind and righteous. He answers the soldier’s indictment of God with “War is not proof of His absence. It’s proof of His absence in men’s hearts.” He is under no obligation to stay with his former owner’s son but he’s a humane man so he ministers to his wounds. Nor is he under any further obligation to remain Jewish but Lopez makes a good case for parallels with the Israelites, ties witnessed in many an African-American spiritual.
Jesse Hinson manages to portray both the hubris of a slave owner and the desperation of a pathetic man broken by war. Keith Mascoll gives a wry performance as the bitter, sardonic ex-slave who puts his own interests above anyone else’s…and who wins us over with his secret. Lopez trades on revelations (which aren’t so hard to anticipate) but Sato Ambush and company create a moving portrait much larger than its secrets.