While staged, almost in its entirety in one room of what is left of the war-ravaged DeLeon mansion, in Richmond, Va., “The Whipping Man” (now playing at Washington, DC's Theater J) carries its audience on a journey that navigates the complexities of war, race, religion, freedom, faith, family, love, betrayal and choice.
When Caleb DeLeon returns to his home at the end of the Civil War, a defeated and injured young Confederate soldier, he finds himself at the mercy of the two former slaves, Simon, who raised him, and John, who was raised with him. The story, penned by Matthew Lopez, deftly intertwines the historical impact of the war's end (bringing with it the subsequent end to slavery), assassination of President Lincoln and beginning of Passover with the personal impact on these three men, individually and collectively, and the choices that they've made and are yet to make.
In the role of Simon, a man dedicated to his family and faith, actor David Emerson Toney says that he drew from past experiences of annual Passover Seders with a former roommate, while leading the play's makeshift Passover celebration. He explained, "Back then, we opened the door for Elijah. We did everything. I have a very warm spot for it. I liked the ritual of it."
When asked about the most difficult part of portraying his character, he said, "It came down to understanding his perspective. Why did he choose Judaism? He could have been Christian or nothing at all. People need something to hang on to, to identify who they are. When he saw the family that he was slave for, he was able to delineate very human behavior from their faith."
Toney continued, "From that, he understood his need for family and to be connected to something bigger than himself. To have power over something that was bigger than he was."
For Mark Hairston, the actor portraying John, the challenge came in trying to show the different sides of a character whose behavior leaned more toward irresponsibility than anything else. He explained, "Nobody is bad all the time… or truly evil all the time. There's a constant fluctuation, and John had gone through a lot in his life. It hardened him, and there was always a reason for his choices. So, I wanted to show John's vulnerable side, and I wanted to show his humor, as well as the rage and the deceit."
Hairston revealed that preparing for the role gave him the motivation to read a book about his own family's history, dating back to slavery, The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White. Reading the book gave him a real connection to his history and, as a result, a deeper connection to the play.
It may seem an odd coincidence that “The Whipping Man” is being performed in two theaters within very close proximity, Washington D.C.'s Theater J and Baltimore's Center Stage, but it is not my coincidence, at all. Along with the play's production, both theaters are offering additional programming, inviting the public to engage in discussions about the issues of race, freedom, faith and other themes presented in the play.
“The Whipping Man”, directed by Jennifer Nelson, will continue its run at Theater J, through Sunday, May 20. For information about performances and additional programming, call 202-777-3210, or visit www.theaterj.org.
Kwame Kwei-Armah’s production of “The Whipping Man” will continue its run at Center Stage, through Sunday, May 20. For information about performances and additional programming, call 410/332-0033, or visit www.centerstage.org/whipping.