[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]he civil war has ended after four long and bloody years.
A young, wounded confederate officer, Caleb DeLeon (Shawn Savage), has made his way painfully back to his family plantation outside of the devastated city of Richmond. He hobbles into the front parlor of his childhood home and faints dead away.
Attracted by the noise, Simon (Ricco Ross), a rifle touting black man, comes to investigate and recognizes the son of his former owner lying bleeding before him. Simon has stayed on the wrecked estate awaiting the return of his former master who has with Simon’s wife and daughter.
And if the audience had not been fully prepped by the lobby cards and program notes, I wonder how many would have noticed the kippah, also called a yarmulke, worn by the former slave. So begins Matthew Lopez’s much touted play “The Whipping Man” now at the Pico Playhouse, which tells the story of Jewish slave owners and their converted black chattel.
Now first of all, though I don’t know why, I’m sure the notion of Jews in the Civil War surprises some. But in 1860 there were some 150,000 Jews settled in America, some with heritages dating back to pre-revolutionary times. During the Civil War, upwards of 12,000 Jews served in the armies and navies of the two warring sides.
Of the some 1,000 generals who served on the Union side during the conflict, seven were Jewish. However, relations between the Union and its Jewish citizens were not without its downside, as shown by General Grant’s infamous General Order No.11, banishing all Jews from his military district for trading in contraband cotton – a widespread and very profitable practice which even high ranking Union officers engaged in. Lincoln’s intercession quickly rescinded the order and thus pacified the first protest that united Jewish voices nationally.
While the South had no Jewish generals, it did have the imposing figure of Judah P. Benjamin.
In 1852, the Louisiana House of Representatives elected Benjamin as that state’s senator, only the second Jewish senator in US history. (The first being David Yulee of Florida, his second cousin.)
While serving in the US senate, abolitionist Ben Wade would call the slavery supporting Benjamin, “an Israelite with Egyptian principles.”
With the outbreak of hostilities Benjamin would serve the Confederacy first as Secretary of War and then as Secretary of State. It would be in the second office where Benjamin would make his lasting contribution to the southern cause, one still afflicting us today.
The Richmond government was in desperate need of aid from England, yet slavery had been long abolished in that country and public sentiment was opposed to any assistance being given to the cause of the South. So Benjamin devised the argument that the conflict was not over slavery, but state rights. The mill workers of 19th century Britain, unlike some of our contemporary politicians, were not so simple minded as to be fooled by this spurious reasoning.
So here is the fertile ground that Lopez has chosen for his play, which tells the story of a Seder held between a confederate deserter and his two former slaves who have been raised in the religion of their white master.
Let me start by saying that Mr. Lopez’s play was first produced at the Manhattan Theatre Club Stage with the remarkably talented Andre Braugher (Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Glory) in the lead. Since then it has been produced at the Old Globe and Actor’s Theatre of Louisville among others and has gone on to win an Obie. And to be honest, I haven’t got a clue as to why.
The play is, at best, a cliché ridden, predictable melodrama.
Generally, you’ll find in the majority of new plays a strong opening act that peters out in a weak second act. Mr. Lopez has come close to providing us the reverse. A vague first act establishes the core relationships of two former slaves with their Jewish master, tossing almost casually into the mix that the slaves are both Jews converted at the behest of a former master.
First of all, I don’t buy it. I am a student of history, it is my passion. And while I do not claim to be an “authority” on the Civil War I am quite well studied on it.
I can tell you about Walt Whitman’s service as a nurse for the Union wounded, that the victor of Gettysburg was a Spaniard by birth, that Lincoln and Jefferson Davis were born in Kentucky and they remain the only “presidents” from that state; I can even tell you about the Chinese giant who fought at Pickett’s charge.
And I knew all about the Jewish presence in the Civil War, but converted slaves? That’s a new one on me. So educate me, inform me. But no, I am just forced to go with the premise.
The first act in no way explores this interesting “possibility” nor tells us much history of the characters. The actors suffer for this lack of foundation, none more so than that of Kirk Kelleykahn as John the young slave who was the former playmate of the son of his master.
The second act opens strong with Savage reciting Caleb’s letter written to his lover who is Simon’s daughter. While the revelation comes as no surprise it is perhaps the best writing and strongest moment of the play.
From there Ross is allowed some solid moments of poignancy in the performance of the Seder dinner, but the play remains stagnant and the “shocking” disclosures that come springing out like a room full of Jack-In-The-Boxes at a day school for the hyper active produce little more than sparks.
Howard Teichman’s direction adds nothing to the production. Costume Designer Michele Young has provided tidy little outfits with no appreciation for either the period or reality of the piece, and Kurtis Bedford has done his best to duplicate John Lee Beatty’s exquisitely haunting set from the original production at the Manhattan Theatre Club. His best falls short of the mark.
Go and decide for yourself if there’s an award winning play here.
Forgive me, however, if I recommend painting the doorway to the Pico Playhouse with the blood of a lamb, because this one should be passed over.