Q&A: Tim Ocel, Director of IRT’s The Whipping Man

Here, director Tim Ocel speaks to IM about the parallels to draw and complexities to consider among race, war, and religion in Indiana Repertory Theatre’s newest play, The Whipping Man. Ocel’s adaptation of Matthew Lopez’s Civil War–era play deals with these hot-button issues head-on, but, as Ocel explains, it’s important to take an active role in breaking down barriers by having controversial conversations. The Whipping Man, opening tonight, is sure to have audiences talking, but before that, we spoke with its director:

SHANA NGO: What can you tie-in to present day issues in The Whipping Man?

TIM OCEL: History relates to us in how it speaks to us now. That’s how history is relevant. I think that the thing that the characters are figuring out in the play is, “Who are we, now? What are we, now?” I think we have that type of question right now in terms of race relationships in who we are, what we are, and also opening up the conversation about race.

SN: How do you think we can do that?

TO: There are many different ways to have a conversation about race. You can sit down at a table and say, “Let’s talk about race.” Or you can do a play about race or you can come see a play about race, or you can talk about other related things such as how you personally feel about race, or what you think are the underlying issues in the conversation of race relationships. What we’re finding in rehearsal with the characters is that the more specific and individual and personal the characters are, race becomes some kind of odd byproduct of what we’ve learned. Sometimes, even in innocence, we may say racist things, but we don’t know that they’re racist until we actually look at them from somebody else’s shoes. The fact that we now have an African-American president, the talk about black, white, Asian, Native American, Hispanic—we have to know how we are together in order to continue in bettering how we are together.

SN: As people are watching this and living this play as they’re watching it, what are some of the main points that you want people to be focusing on?

TO: Everybody watches a play from their own point of view, and this is not just color-specific, it’s also gender-specific. A woman might see something in this play differently than a man will. Generationally, there’s a lot of differences. What I would like the current audience to acknowledge is that we have our differences because we are specifically ourselves. What we want to do is, we want to agree that we have differences, and we can handshake on those. I’m hoping that what a collective audience sees is that it’s not that we’re all the same in a way, but that we’re all different, but that that’s good. That is what our sameness is.

SN: As soldiers are coming home now, and they’re coming into their new roles in society, how do you think this play might translate into that?

TO: There’s a certain parallel because at the beginning of the play there’s a soldier who comes home, and he’s been damaged by the war and will continue to be damaged by the war in the fact that this is 1865, and this man is losing his leg. So there is the mark of the war upon him both psychologically and physically. And the whole way of life is different because he was of the South, now his entire way of life is different. And also his faith is in question, which I think is a big parallel between a soldier returning home nowadays and soldiers throughout time—what has been their relationship with God or their God or their belief system in terms of seeing mass destruction and also instilling mass destruction? Like, “What did I do to other human beings?” And once you come home, you do have to face that. Rather than just being in the field and surviving, or whatever that event would be, you now have to live with what your handiwork was. In terms of our play, the young soldier who is coming home has a crisis of faith. I think there are some parallels with that particularly.

SN: At the end of play, when people are leaving, what is something that you feel will stay with them?

TO: I think that what’s going to be staying with them the most is that we are going to agree with the characters at various points during the play, and we will also disagree with them at various points of the play. But I do think that the collaboration of the audience watching this play will come to some kind of consensus that we all have choices—that we all have the freedom to make choices in this country, particularly. And what choices are we going to make? We are all individuals, and we are all thinking individuals, and we all have choices. Some of those choices might be hard, and they might make us uneasy or uncomfortable, both psychologically and physically—it might put us at a hardship. But there is still a choice to be made about what is right and what is wrong in terms of the world and our fellow human beings. If all people are created equal, and I believe they are, are we making choices to uphold that and to respect that, and, in a sense, to respect ourselves?

The Whipping Man runs March 5-24.  Show times vary.  Opening Night Fri. Mar. 8 at 7:30 p.m. Indiana Repertory Theatre. 140 W. Washington St., 635-5252. www.irtlive.com