Review: 'Promised land' takes on new meaning in tale of Jewish slave owner

By LISA BROCK | Special to the Star Tribune
FEBRUARY 6, 2017 — 2:27PM

The original article can be found HERE.

Near the end of Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company’s “The Whipping Man,” three men sit on the floor of a ransacked Southern mansion after the Civil War, celebrating a makeshift Passover meal.

One, a recently freed slave, segues from reciting the ritual language of the Seder into singing the African-American spiritual “Go Down, Moses.” It’s a moment fraught with pain and illumination that binds together this play’s disparate threads as tightly as a knot.

Matthew Lopez’s play delves into a little-considered facet of history: Many Jews in the South owned slaves and raised them in their beliefs. At the same time, Lopez takes a hard look at the legacy of slavery, the dynamics of power and the meaning of faith, giving this work a sense of immediacy.

The play opens in a thunderstorm as Confederate soldier Caleb DeLeon (Riley O’Toole) staggers home, wounded and delirious, at the end of the Civil War. He finds his house in ruins and his family fled, leaving behind only Simon, a former slave played by Warren C. Bowles. The two men are soon joined by John (JuCoby Johnson), another former slave who’s taken to looting abandoned homes and bingeing on stolen liquor. Over three days, while these men deal with such grim tasks as the amputation of Caleb’s gangrenous leg, they reveal closely held secrets, lies and existential dilemmas.

Simon serves as the drama’s moral touchstone, a patriarchal embodiment of conscience, and Bowles lends the role a beautifully understated yet powerful authority. In contrast to his quiet rectitude and stoic faith, the two younger men flail in frenetic confusion. Johnson’s John is a mercurial gadfly whose scathing verbal repartee descends into stuttering incoherence as he reveals the physical and psychic damage lifelong slavery has inflicted upon him. O’Toole teeters between arrogance and tears as Caleb is forced to examine the ugly reality behind his illusions of a romantic South.

“The Whipping Man” tends more toward talk than action (aside from the gruesome amputation) but noted actress Sally Wingert, in a solid directorial debut, maintains a taut pace right through to the harrowing conclusion. Michael Hoover’s set, the skeletal husk of an antebellum mansion, and Paul Epton’s atmospheric lighting reinforce the bleakness of these characters’ situations as they must each forge a new path.

Penumbra Theatre mounted this play in 2009, but MJTC deserves credit for recognizing that its timeliness and the powerful conundrum it embodies merit a luminous second look.

Theater review: ‘The Whipping Man’ spotlights our past, illuminates our today

By RENEE VALOIS | Special to the Pioneer Press

PUBLISHED: February 5, 2017 at 1:33 pm | UPDATED: February 5, 2017 at 1:43 pm

The original article can be found HERE.

More than 150 years after the end of the Civil War, that horrific episode in America’s history still casts a shadow over our country.

“The Whipping Man”, Matthew Lopez’s award-winning play set at the end of the war in Richmond, Virginia, shows some of the reasons why—but it does much more. It also explores the idea of freedom—and how our choices can enslave us and those we touch, or can deliver us to liberty.

This isn’t the first time Lopez’s play has been staged in St. Paul (Penumbra did it), but it’s the first time beloved actress Sally Wingert has directed a show. Her production shines in spite of the setting’s stormy nights; from the casting and depth of the acting to the staging and set, she has broken open the power of the play.

Warren C. Bowles anchors the action of the three-person show in a compelling performance as Simon, a longtime slave of the wealthy DeLeon family. He was raised to be Jewish, like his masters, and follows an inner compass that guides him to “do what’s right” even if that means saving the life of one who used to order him around (and still wants to).

He admonishes and advises two young men, one white and one black, that he calls “two peas in a pod.” Although they grew up together, their closeness was shattered by an event that transformed their brotherly relationship into harsh “master” and “slave” roles.

The young men are both clearly hiding something and flailing at life—and we gradually learn how their choices have shackled them. Riley O’Toole is powerful as Caleb DeLeon, the son of the household and a wounded Confederate soldier—who barely manages to make his way home, only to find everyone gone from the half-destroyed mansion except for loyal, hopeful Simon.

Former slave John (JuCoby Johnson) moves in and out of the house, angry, drinking, looting—clearly being devoured by something from within. Wingert gives him wide-ranging restlessness as he moves up and down the spiral stairs and roams back and forth across the stage like a caged animal in stark contrast to the immobile, wounded Caleb, whose limited range suggests how his authority has shrunk.

The show also grapples with love versus possession as it considers the results of liaisons between white masters and black slave women. Can someone truly love you if they have no choice in the relationship?

This fine production of an intense, riveting play slices through lies to reveal what freedom really demands—intersecting events of our world today in a canny, disturbing way.

“The Whipping Man”

  • Where: Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Pkwy., St. Paul
  • When: Through February 26
  • Tickets: $20-34, $12 student rush
  • Information:  mnjewishtheatre.org; 651-647-4315

Review: "The Highwaymen" at History Theatre and "The Whipping Man" Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company

Cherry and Spoon
Monday, February 6, 2017

The original review can be found HERE.

Yesterday, when most of the world was watching some sporting event on TV, I saw two plays in St. Paul that spoke to the African American experience. When I sat down to write about one or the other today, I found that I couldn't separate the two. Maybe it's just because I saw them on the same day, but it seems like the two plays really speak to each other. History Theatre's world premiere of The Highwaymen and Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company production of The Whipping Man ("one of the most widely produced new American plays of the last several seasons") essentially tell the same story, 90 years apart, one in St. Paul, Minnesota and one in Richmond, Virginia. A story that continues to occur today in cities and small towns across the country. A story of black people being sent to the whipping man, of being sold South, of having their homes bulldozed to make way for "progress," of being imprisoned at a disproportional rate, of being denied education, of being shot by the police for walking down the wrong street. Both of these plays are really excellent productions, not always easy to watch, that shed light on one of the most important issues of our time.

...

The Whipping Man by Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company at the Highland Park Community Center

From St. Paul in 1956 to Richmond in 1865 - same show, different channel. The Civil War has just ended, freeing the slaves, but Simon (Warren C. Bowles) is waiting in the war-destroyed DeLeon family home for his former master to return and give him the money he promised him upon winning his freedom. The master's son Caleb (Riley O'Toole) returns from the war, injured and under suspicious circumstances. Former slave John (JuCoby Johnson) also returns to the home he grew up in, also under suspicious circumstances. The story plays out on Michael Hoover's realistic set of shabby southern home, far removed from its former glory.

In a new twist to the Civil War drama, the DeLeon family is Jewish, as are their slaves. The three men come together to celebrate the Seder meal (which commemorates the freeing of slaves in ancient Egypt), and discuss their shared faith and complicated family history. Caleb and Simon insist that the DeLeons are "good" slave-owners, they treated their slaves well and only whipped them when absolutely necessary, but John insists that a slave is still a slave. Caleb and John grew up together and were close as brothers, until Caleb realized that he owned John. Caleb is in love with Simon's daughter Sara, but what kind of love is that if he also owns her?

The play beautifully and painfully illustrates the intricacies of the slave/master relationship, one that has had and continues to have lasting effects on our country (see above). This is another incredible cast that makes you feel every one of their intense emotions, and you would never know that this is TC theater veteran Sally Wingert's directing debut, so all around wonderful is this production.

We're only 150 years past slavery, which isn't very long in the course of human history. Slavery was a seriously messed up and incredibly complicated system, so it's no wonder we're still pretty messed up 150 years later. And just because we Minnesotans live north of the Mason-Dixon line doesn't mean racism hasn't happened and doesn't continue to happen here. To paraphrase a line in The Highwaymen, the racism of the North (e.g., Rondo) is the same as the racism of the South (e.g., slavery), it just looks different, with a nicer face. Racism is so ingrained in us and our country, in ways we don't even realize. We need a complete paradigm shift. I don't know how that's going to happen, but I do know that knowing our history, not just facts and figures but how human lives were affected, and making and supporting theater that gives voice to the voiceless and engenders empathy and understanding across cultures can only help. Both of these plays are powerful examples of that, and the casts and creative teams have done well by the stories they're telling.

The Highwaymen and The Whipping Man both continue through February 26. Please see one or both of these plays, remember our history, open your ears, mind, and heart, have a conversation, and help us do better than we've done in the past and attempt to remedy the wrongs that have been done. As Timothy Howard reminds us, "keep your eyes open!"

Review - The Whipping Man - Minnesota Jewish Theatre - They Don't Make 'Em Like This Anymore - 5 stars

By Matthew Everett
Wednesday, February 08, 2017

The original review can be read HERE.

The Whipping Man is a quiet little surprise of a theatrical production, and that is a most welcome thing.  I missed Penumbra Theatre’s regional premiere of Matthew Lopez’s play eight years ago but it’s easy to see how it became one of the most produced plays in regional theaters around the country in recent years.  And it’s not just because it’s a single set, three-person show that makes it logistically easier for a theater to produce.  They don’t really write plays like The Whipping Man much anymore, which makes me appreciate it even more fully.  

“You don’t get to be free.  You work to be free.”

The Whipping Man is a play that just allows three richly drawn characters to exist in the same space together in varying combinations, and over the course of the story, these three people just keep revealing new things about themselves, one layer at a time.  The revelations keep coming right up into the very closing minutes of the play.  And it’s not filled with a lot of melodrama or wailing and bombast.  These characters feel things very deeply, and have a lot of cause for grievance, but they don’t get what they want with a lot of yelling and screaming.  It’s the quite moments in The Whipping Man that are the most telling, including that final, very loaded moment when the lights begin to the fade at the end of the play.  A moment filled with a strange kind of hope.  A hope we desperately need right now.  Put a story like this in the hands of a talented director - Sally Wingert - and three skilled actors - Warren C. Bowles, JuCoby Johnson, and Riley O’Toole - as the Minnesota Jewish Theatre does, and you’ve got a powerful piece of theater.

“Don’t question me about the history of this house.  I know the history of this house.”

The Whipping Man takes place at the end of the Civil War (I know, I know, I had the same knee-jerk “Oh man, I’m not sure I want to go there right now” response, but go there, you get an enormous payoff).  A young Jewish Confederate soldier (yes, apparently we had those, I feel slightly remiss in my education) Caleb DeLeon (O’Toole) returns to his family estate to find it looted and in ruins. But an oldfaithful family servant, Simon (Bowles), now a free man rather than a slave thanks to President Lincoln, still stands guard over the house. A younger freed slave who is Caleb’s age named John (Johnson) also soon makes an appearance.  John has been helping himself to the contents of unguarded neighboring estates and now returns to the DeLeon place, which was also once his home.  Though absent, Caleb’s father, and Simon’s wife and daughter, all cast long shadows over the memory and relationships of the three men taking refuge in the ravaged homestead.  Caleb has been wounded in one of the Civll War’s final battles and it’s up to Simon and John, who can no longer be commanded, but only asked, to help keep Caleb alive.  All these men have something to fear, and all these men have something to hide.  But at the same time they all have something to hope for.  And that’s what ultimately makes The Whipping Man such a satisfying experience.

“War is not proof of God’s absence.  War is proof of God’s absence from men’s hearts.”

To say too much more would give away some of the many interesting surprises and turns in the plot and character revelations, and in the case of The Whipping Man, it’s really best to go in blind and go on the journey.  Honestly, I heard “beloved Twin Cities actress Sally Wingert makes her directorial debut” and I didn’t even care what the play was.  I wanted to see it.  The three actors involved just sweetened the deal. 

“You did it because you could; simple as that.”

[Strange side note: the only other time I’d heard of The Whipping Man was in the context of the show Thatswhatshesaid, a performance art piece that touched down twice in Minneapolis before heading home to Seattle and causing no end of controversy. The premise was simple: take TCG’s list of new plays most produced by regional theaters around the US in a given season; thread together the lines and stage directions dealing with the female characters in those plays. First the plays written by women (the minority), then the plays written by men. Off to the side of the stage, someone performs the idea of turning the pages of the play, seeking out the next line for a female character. The Whipping Man was on the most produced list.  The Whipping Man has no female characters.  For the section having to do with The Whipping Man in Thatswhatshesaid, the audience got to sit and listen to the sound of 72 pages being turned.  On to the next play…]

“Like it or not, we are a family.”

The Whipping Man deals with the thorny topics of race, privilege, free will, and the human family large and small in ways that are so firmly rooted in these particular characters whom we care about, that you feel the impact, for better or worse, of the choices these people make and the society in which they make them.  We don’t get sidetracked so much by what they say, and are able to focus on what they do, and what it means.  The Whipping Man deals in hard truths in a surprisingly gentle but still powerful way.  It doesn’t spare the audience, but it also doesn’t attack them.  Nor does it leave the audience without hope.  These days, that’s a great and necessary thing for a piece of theater to do.  We could use more theater like Minnesota Jewish Theatre’s production of The Whipping Man(running through February 26, 2017)

5 stars - Very Highly Recommended