Ironies of Slavery Unchained in The Whipping Man
By Jerome Langston
A rare thing is happening this Saturday afternoon, in a rehearsal space housed within the new offices of the Virginia Stage Company in downtown Norfolk. A rather frank, yet friendly discussion about race, and the legacy of American slavery, is occurring between two white and three black guys, while sitting around two unadorned tables.
Yet make no mistake about it, this isn’t some casual conversation happening between scholars and/or Civil War history buffs. Rather, this is a conversation provoked by art: between three stage actors, a play director and an arts writer. The art in this case is the award-winning historical drama, The Whipping Man, a play that is being performed professionally for the first time here in Virginia, as part of VSC’s current 34th season.
The Whipping Man is set in Virginia, Richmond specifically… and so fittingly, Jasson Minadakis, its passionate director, is from the former Confederate Capital. He even admits that the play’s setting added to the initial appeal of the work to him, when he first read it a few years ago prior to its off-Broadway run.
“It was the first play that I had come across that was set in my hometown,” he acknowledges. “That was exciting, but then I loved the play…fell in love with it.”
As apparently did the many theater critics who heaped exhaustive praise upon Matthew Lopez’s August Wilson-esque two-act drama, especially during its off-Broadway run in 2011 at the Manhattan Theatre Club. That production, which starred the acclaimed actor Andre Braugher as Simon, was a hit, and Lopez would receive the John Gassner Playwright Award from the Outers Critics Circle.
Artistic Directors at quality regional theatre companies around the country, also apparently fell in love with the play, as it is being produced by a dozen or more companies as part of their 2012/2013 seasons. The production here in VA that is being helmed by Jasson, is actually a co-production with the Marin Theatre Company, where he serves as Artistic Director. That production at Marin will follow this VSC run.
“I thought it was a really good piece for us,” Minadakis explains, referring to MTC. “We like to do plays that are about other places and other times and other cultures…”
Jasson is the one who first suggested the idea to co-produce the work with VSC, during a conversation with its Artistic Director, Chris Hanna, a couple years back. Jasson had already decided that The Whipping Man would be a part of Marin’s current season; so consequently, he was already assembling his creative team.
“He was very generous in allowing us to bring our company, really, to do the show with his people here,” Jasson acknowledges.
That company includes the three actors who portray the play’s three characters. They’ve all acted in MTC productions before. Stage veteran L. Peter Callender plays Simon; Tobie Windham portrays John, while Nicholas Pelczar is Caleb DeLeon, the Confederate Captain.
“Everybody’s got secrets…and it takes the entire time, all the way down to the last line of the play, to dig them all up,” the director explains, when asked what audiences can anticipate upon their first viewing of the work. “It’s quite a ride.”
Indeed. Richmond is in literal ruins at the time of the play, a casualty of the Civil War, in April of 1865. The DeLeons are Richmond Jews who own a few slaves, including Simon, an older man who largely runs their domestic household, and John, the inquisitive and spirited young-un, who has been raised in Simon’s care. Both are now freed men at the start of the play. When Caleb DeLeon, the son of their master, returns home badly injured, following his service as a Confederate Captain, it leads to the opening of a Pandora ’s Box of drama. The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the tradition of Passover, adds to the nuanced complexity of the story.
For the actors, each role presents its own set of challenges. They are all new to VSC, as well as newly occupying these dramatic roles. “There’s a lot to try to take on and incorporate,” admits Pelczar, who attended UVA. “I’m still feeling it out in lots of ways.”
Tobie’s preparation for the role of John, has involved a range of activity, including reading a lot about the great abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, to viewing the controversial Quentin Tarantino blockbuster, Django Unchained, with a critical eye.
“What does all of this mean…how am I free now, what do I do?” asks the LA based actor, expressing some of the internal questions that his character, John, has in the play.
The role of Simon is perhaps the most complex of the three, because of how he negotiates his new reality as a freed man, with his determined loyalty to the DeLeons, even following emancipation.
“He’s a complicated character,” Callender acknowledges. “My struggle in this first week of rehearsal is to not go back to things that I think I know— to start over again and create somebody from new.”
So I inquire towards the end of our interview, before the actors and director jump into this afternoon’s rehearsal of a couple of long scenes, why slavery and the Civil War are such hot topics in today’s public discourse, as well as being explored so popularly in cinematic art. We all agree that it has to do with the time that has passed, allowing for more complex discussions around these volatile and for many, still painful subjects. Perhaps Jasson summarizes it best though.
“We are still dealing with the legacy of the moment that this play depicts.”
The Whipping Man
Virginia Stage Company
Feb. 26-Mar. 17