It’s April in 1865. General Robert E. Lee has surrendered, and Southern soldiers are retreating home. For many of them, it takes days and weeks to return from Appomattox.The slaves are freed. And it just so happens to be a time that people of Jewish faith are preparing to celebrate Passover. It is also a sad time for African Americans as they discover President Abraham Lincoln’s passing.
That’s just the beginning of the parallel situations facing these characters on April 13, 1865, and the two days that follow in director Tim Ocel’s skillful adaptation of The Whipping Man.
I had to let this performance sink in because I was riddled with so many different emotions and self-evaluations. The fact that I can’t seem to shake the powerful performances of the actors in this stage drama is just one example of the impact that playwright Matthew Lopez was trying to achieve when the play premiered in 2006. And Ocel’s direction of this powerful production of The Whipping Man excels.
Let me introduce you to the characters that have been populating my thoughts for days: The audience is first introduced to Caleb DeLeon (Andrew C. Ahrens), a badly injured Jewish soldier of the South who’s finally found his way home to Richmond, Va. He’s greeted—sort of—by Simon (David Alan Anderson), a recently freed Jewish slave at Caleb’s family’s estate, himself full of dreams and hope for the future. The third and final character we meet is John (Tyler Jacob Rollinson). John is also a recently freed Jewish slave of the DeLeon estate. He’s savvy and cunning, and takes advantage of the other ransacked Southern estates, but his antics provide comic relief in a way to assuage the rather heavy topics at the forefront.
The story is a labyrinth of love and hate, deception and revelation, freedom and enslavement, friends and enemies. It’s an ironic tale of once-enslaved people owning slaves. The characters have known each other for decades, like strangers who know each other very well. But their personal life experiences revealed throughout the play give three decidedly different perspectives of the times they shared together—as master and slave, both Jewish—and on how the transition of slavery to freedom will affect their relationships in the future.
As each in this trio comes to terms with his new station in life, he must also come to terms with what he’s witnessed, what’s been done to him, what he has done to the others. The Whipping Man provides the platform for inner contemplation, and hopefully, outward conversation among theatergoers. Each of us as an individual brings a fresh life perspective. The differences go beyond class, race, upbringing, and finding those new stations in life. It’s everything—put together in our own unique melting pots—and no one else can see the world through the eyes that each of us has been given.
Revelations throughout the play evoked collective gasps throughout the audience, including the introduction of the whipping man and his relevance to the story. Not for the faint of heart or the easily offended, The Whipping Man touches on controversial topics not meant for younger audiences. It’s not must-see. It’s can’t-miss.
The Whipping Man runs through March 24. Show times vary. Indiana Repertory Theatre, 140 W. Washington St., 317-635-5252. www.irtlive.com
Check out IM’s exclusive Q&A with director Tim Ocel