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A Slave to History

March 3, 2011 By:
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André Braugher (center) and André Holland (left) let freedom ring, as does Jay Wilkinson as the son of their erstwhile master in "The Whipping Man."

 

Four questions? More like a score.

That's what playwright Matthew Lopez has raised in "The Whipping Man," his Civil War drama of uncivil behavior between peoples, now playing off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theater Club at New York City Center.

Of all those raised, possibly the key question is: Why is this play different from all others?

Because this one brings to the seder table two slaves who have adopted their master's Jewish faith, even as the owner's son has lost his.

In putting out the chair for Elijah, Lopez has also pulled out the chair from under audience's expectations as "The Whipping Man" gives a whuppin' to prosaically produced plays.

As rallying cry, the South will rise again begs debate; but what made a New York Hispanic non-Jewish writer with no real professional theatrical background rise to the occasion of such a complex, if arcane, topic as Jews, slaves and internecine infernos?

In a way, argues Lopez, he's just a slave to history. "I'm an American history geek," says the 33-year-old with a thirst for Civil War arcana -- and a big fan of the movie "Glory" -- whose research revealed that some slaves owned by Jews took the religion as their own.

He's made a matzah meal out of it. But then, Lopez owns up to just following history forged by other writers: "The maxim goes, 'Write what you know.' "

But who knew the rites and rituals of Judaism could be played out -- as they are nightly -- in such compelling fashion, with the end of the Civil War, the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the start of Passover rolled into an historical/theatrical troika that actually occurred in April 1865?

A number of regional theaters did, staging the work -- which actually started out in life as a 20-minute playlet -- before the Manhattan Theater Club took the drama, as well as the young University of South Florida graduate and erstwhile actor, under its wing, pushing him from the stage wings into the spotlight.

Sharing center stage for audience attention is another of Lopez's luminous conceits and questions: "How does it affect an individual to suddenly be free?" he asks in reference to the two slaves assayed by André Braugher and André Holland, free men ministering to the gangrenous leg of their owner's son (Jay Wilkinson), in the brave new and apocalyptic world of post-Appomattox.

This mix of the blues and grays colors the play in a spectrum of splashy debates, cleverly conceived; indeed, this unchained melody of free verse has a Hebraic lilt to it.

"Pockets of our history," says the playwright of the epiphany that is the existence of black Jewish slaves, "yield some fascinating results."

Truth Is Stranger ... 
And, yes, says Lopez with a laugh, he does understand that the tableaux of the two André characters sitting down for their seder and hewing to the Haggadah "does seem unbelievable," even as the ritual's parallels in African-Americans' own exodus are sketched out clearly.

But Lopez did get the hechsher of one major historian: Philadelphia native Jonathan Sarna, chief curator for the National Museum of American Jewish History, on Independence Mall here, as well as the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University.

The professor's imprimatur impressed the playwright of his own slavish devotion: "I felt, 'Oh, my God! I did my homework correctly.' "

Gold star, says Sarna, who was asked by the Manhattan Theater Club for historical advice about the script's accuracy. As for Torah-spouting slaves adhering to kashrut -- as the freed characters do in "The Whipping Man" -- it's all, indeed, kosher.

Only in America?

"More so in the Caribbean," notes Sarna. Not that such Jewish adherents were common in the States, "but it's plausible. I can think of cases where it occurred, usually as products of liaisons" between Jewish masters and female slaves.

Historical Embarrassment? 
As for the nettlesome injection into the play of the moral minefield manifested by Jews owning slaves -- a case of hide the afikomen and the historical embarrassment?

Replies Sarna: "It's a very real issue: Any Jew in the South who could afford one, had one."

Let these people go: Two types of audiences have helped sustain the see-worthy play by Lopez (whose next project, "Tio Pepe," about a Puerto Rican family, hits closer to home): Black and Jewish theatergoers, says Lopez, not only have been showing up in droves for "The Whipping Man," "they are taking the play home with them," where the debate and the dialogue rage from the page to the stage to the cages rattled over dinner tables.

"People are taking home a sense of ownership."

And some would like to take home the playwright.

"I'm going to a seder," says Lopez of accepting the invitation from one of his producers and her family for next month's celebration of Passover. "If I wouldn't, I'd feel guilty."

Gee.

Maybe he is Jewish after all.

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