Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Whipping Man

L. Peter Callender as "Simon"; Tobie Windham as "John"

I'd really been looking forward to playwright Matthew Lopez's The Whipping Man, especially after speaking to Tobie Windham about his role as N-(expletive) John, so while certainly Tobie Windham and L. Peter Callender, two of my favorite actors were phenomenal, the story was not. Granted, the addition of Judaism made the mix interesting if for nothing but the persecuted Jewry's participation in another person's persecution, in this case enslaved Africans. And the fact that I am not a Jew made the rituals Elder Simon, formerly enslaved, officiated with such finesse from memory truly one of the perhaps many scattered jewels in the work.

Former owner Capt. Caleb (Nicholas Pelzar) meets a startled Simon
It was strange though that neither Caleb nor Simon sympathized with John when they found out what kind of trouble he was in, nor did either man offer him guidance regarding this new suit called freedom he'd sent to the tailor for adjusting. It is an interesting dilemma to find oneself shackled to the enemy; which means for John, in order to save himself he has to save his captor too. Hum. What a provocative conclusion. One suggestion raised during the talk after the play, was to have the playwright, who is a television writer, start a series where each week TV audiences could learn more about the men and their lives post-freedom.

Is this the new Roots? The perspective is certainly not an Alex Haley worthy sequel. That said, it might be cool for a season to see where this goes if the same cast is also used for the sitcom. The playwright is certainly getting a lot of play, literally on this work, with it appearing simultaneously on multiple stages throughout the country. The MTC production comes here after a month run in Norfolk, Virginia from February 26-March 17, 2013. Tobie said they met a man whose ancestors were enslaved African Jews. He showed them letters and other artifacts from his family. The story is as much about the injured former owner who is dependent on the kindness of men whom he was not too kind too. We can guess how this scenario will play out. . . . Of course the black men are forgiving, at least Simon is, initially. Why Simon believes he can trust a person who enslaved him to do right by him when this "Master," lost the war, is a bit of a stretch I am still trying to perceive. Maybe I need a better prescription--I just can't see it.

Freedmen John, Simon, Caleb at Sacred Meal or Passover Seder
All photos: Samuel W. Flint
John is what happens when a person is without guidance or without a role model. He is smart, yet, he doesn't know what to do with the knowledge he has acquired. A child in a man's body, he doesn't realize until it is too late what consequences result in his withholding information from Simon.

Simon says freedom as not a state rather the prize one gets from labor. The shackles don't just rust and fall off, one has to turn the key. John gets close, but some dreams evade slumbering souls, just because it's hard to wish for something one cannot imagine.

The Whipping Man has been extended at the Marin Theatre Company through April 28.


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