Matthew Lopez’s gripping examination of the intersection of race, religion and power opened to critical acclaim in 2006, and has in the years since been among the most frequently produced plays on the American stage. George Street’s production, directed by Seret Scott, captures all its excruciating moral ambiguity.
The first scene features all three characters participating in an on-stage leg amputation, but that might well turn out to be these characters’ least painful meeting of the evening. The opens in the days after General Lee surrendered at Appomattox. A soldier without a company or commander is greeted by Simon, a black man with a rifle and little interest in hosting an unannounced guest. This tension is broken by the revelation that Caleb, the wounded man is the eldest son of the De Leon family who owned Simon as a slave. Of course the war is now over, and so the relationship between Simon and Caleb is immediately and permanently altered.
Simon is the stately stalwart who has kept the house running smoothly for years, while John is the younger troublemaker. The entire Richmond neighborhood of the De Leon house had been destroyed in the war and men like John are eager to loot as much as they can. At one point, after John shows up with a wheelbarrow full of stolen goods, Caleb asks him why he would want to own all this stuff. John replies simply and pointedly: “Because I can.” The Whipping Man is full of these sorts of revealing moments.
Lopez’s setting of the play in the days after the end of the Civil War allows him to explore undefined social terrain. None of the characters here are sure what the future holds or how to go about pursuing it; all they are certain of is that change has come and the world looks quite different to how it once did only a few weeks ago.
The play examines the radically redefined relationship between the two former slaves and their enfeebled former master. A sense of duty leads them to help him but beyond that nothing can be taken for granted about who these people are or how they will now relate to each other.
The production features three fine performances, but Luke Forbes is particularly strong as John, perhaps the most dynamic character. It is easy to dismiss him as an opportunistic drunk in the play’s opening moments, but Forbes makes very clear that his is a deep and complex humanity.
The Whipping Man is as much about seemingly eternal conflicts between people as it is about the moment of its setting. Lopez’s play has a keen eye for this particularly fraught period in history, but so too is it attuned to the everyday dimensions of its characters. The play’s climax leaves the door open for sentimentality – if the playwright had any interest in that sort of thing, but Lopez has the courage to stay focused on the characters’ pain and their continuing conflict.