In his 2011 review in the New York Times of the City Center’s Stage One production of The Whipping Man, theatre critic Charles Isherwood references an early moment in the play that “carries a quiet force that manages to lay to rest any lingering skepticism audiences may be feeling in response to (playwright Matthew) Lopez’s conceit.” That conceit, which Isherwood writes, “has precedent in the historical record,” is that there were African American Jews in the south at the time of the Civil War.
It’s a conceit that René Copeland, artistic director of the Nashville Repertory Theatre and director of the Rep’s production of the play, says will wash away for Nashville audiences just as quickly. The Whipping Man is in previews Thursday and Friday, February 5 and 6, and opens Saturday, February 7 at Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Johnson Theater.
“There are only three characters in the play,” says Copeland, “The two that are the now freed slaves are obviously – from the very beginning — fully practicing Jews. It’s clear that Simon, the father figure in this sort of make-shift Seder dinner that’s put together, is a man of faith. It’s written in such a way, and these actors are so great, that you accept it right away. It’s fiber of who they are and that they think of themselves as Jews. “
The Whipping Man, which had its premiere in 2006 at the Luna Stage in Montclair, New Jersey, tells the story of Caleb DeLeon, played by Matthew Rosenbaum, a badly wounded Jewish Confederate soldier who returns home to his family’s nearly destroyed house in Richmond, Virginia at the Civil War’s end. He discovers that his family has fled. Remaining are two of his family’s now free former slaves, Simon, played by Eddie George, and John, played by James Rudolph. Simon and John, who years earlier were converted to Judaism by the head of the DeLeon household, are preparing a Passover Seder. Together the three men celebrate the holiday while struggling with their own history and place in a changing world.
“Certainly we’ve had a plethora of Civil War stories in this world,” says Copeland. “But this play is the first I’m aware of that juxtaposes the African American experience of slavery with the Israelites experience of slavery through the Passover experience. It’s definitely a story of the Civil War, but it’s not about whether we should judge slavery or the South. It presumes that we all understand that slavery is a crime against humanity.
“Lopez has said that he was really interested as an artist in exploring the moments after the big event, that thing that changes your life forever. How do we as human beings respond to that? So he uses the Civil War to talk about universal questions — what it means to be human, how do you move forward out of disaster, what does it mean to be a whole human being again — after your whole world has been turned upside down. Those kinds of questions are not parochial, and are not just about the Civil War story. That’s a universal story.”
The Nashville Rep’s production of The Whipping Man brings together three Nashville-based actors who are all new to the Rep’s main stage, but will be familiar to Nashville theater and sports fans. George is most notable for being a Heisman Trophy winner and running back for the Tennessee Titans, but he has since gone on to act in lead roles in the Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s productions of Julius Caesar and Othello. Rosenbaum is a Belmont grad who was most recently in the Nashville Children’s Theatre’s 2014 Production of The Outsiders. James Rudolph wrapped up 2014 in the NCT production of James and the Giant Peach.
“I usually have a mix of actors I’ve worked with before and I always try to fold new talent into the equation because it’s good for everybody,” says Copeland. “But this is the first time in a long time I’ve had a cast where every single member was kind of new to me. It’s been great getting to know them and learn how they work. It’s been a fun experience for all of us.”
Set design for the show, which essentially required creating a replica of a Civil War-era Richmond home and destroying it, was created by the Reps’ masterful head designer Gary Hoff and props mistress Evelyn Pearson.
The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez runs February 7-21, 2015, with previews Feb. 5-6, at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s (TPAC) Johnson Theater. For tickets and more information, visit nashvillerep.org.