Posted by: strugglesome | December 8, 2011

Birth Of A Nation: The Arden Theatre’s The Whipping Man

History plays are tricky things. When you write a play involving major, or minor, historic events you invite all sorts of criticism into the mix, not just artistically, but from the point of view of historical accuracy. Instead of thinking about narrative, about staging and performance, you can easily force your audiences to spend the show considering whether it seems plausible that Benedict Arnold really just wanted to paint, or if Ghengis Khan ran a rather successful matchmaking business on the side. You have to make us want to believe that this could be a true story, that’s the key. And when you don’t, you are sure to receive an audience who spends their time in the theater wondering if you think they are just that gullible.

And that is a problem, though, sadly, not the only one, facing Matthew Lopez’s play, The Whipping Man, currently playing at the Arden Theatre Company. Set in the Ante-Bellum South (and by ante I do mean immediately ante, almost per, if you know what I’m saying), this story begins, as so many do, with a homecoming. Caleb (Cody Nickwell), a confederate solider, arrives home to find his childhood home (mansion) in tatters and his family fled. All that remains are splintered floorboards, dusty drapes, and, oh, yeah, two former-slaves, Simon (Johnnie Hobbs Jr.) and John (James Ijames).  And after a quick amputation (Caleb’s leg, gangrene is such a downer) and some playing catch up, the motley crew settles down to enjoy a nice Passover seder. Oh, did I not mention that this is a Jewish household, so all the slaves have been raised as Jews? As Liz Lemon would say, twist!

And that’s not the only one stuffed into this story like clowns in a tiny car. We’ve got race (duh), the assassination of president Lincoln, the forging of black identity post-slavery, illegitimate mixed-race children (as in, more then one), baby-mama drama, army desertion, and war torn star-crossed sweethearts. Given that this play takes place over only a few days, that’s pretty impressive, really. Nickwell’s Caleb, who is rendered immobile by his home-made amputation in the first scene, lays, swaddled in blankets and soothed by whiskey, in the center of his ramshackle palace, moaning in a Southern accent. Around him Hobbs, Jr.’s wise and weary Simon tries to instill some sense of morality in this world turned upside down while still asserting his newly-freed rights. Ijames’ John has a different motive in mind, seeking to torture Caleb, blaming him for the past beatings inflicted on John by the titular Whipping Man. John, an educated salve, confronts Caleb with their shared religion, reminding him that the Torah states that the Israelites can only take as slaves non-Jews. But when John realizes that the following day is in fact the first night of Passover, the holiday in which Jews celebrate the liberation from our bondage in Egypt, Simon decides that despite the fact that they have no food, no wine, no seder plate and no supplies, a seder is in order. And at this Last Supper these three men must confront the past and the scars it has left on each one of them. And on our broken nation. Like you do. And to think, my family just gets drunk.

Played in the Arden’s more intimate Arcadia Stage, this production has the benefit of really solid design and clear and committed acting. David P. Gordon’s set looks like it has been ripped right out of a Savannah home, crumbling with age but still stately, while Thom Weaver’s lighting keeps the tones dark and the feeling ominous. Christopher Colucci’s sound design is nice and neat, unobtrusive when it needs to be and sweetly melodic in the scene breaks. Alison Roberts’ costumes date the piece nicely and give it that Civil-War era charm you usually only find in historic reenactments.  And the trio onstage work beautifully together, finding human and humanity in even the least interesting dialogue and working hard to make the oddly jerky narrative smooth and natural. Nickwell is appropriately tortured, Ijames is sharp and wounded, and Hobbs. Jr. elevates his kosher Uncle Tom-style role to something that is actually sympathetic and interesting to watch. It’s just a shame that all of these well crafted elements only serve to highlight the deep-seated issues in this script.

Putting aside the probability that any freed slave really would have stuck around his former master’s abode and the fact that Jews made up less than 2% of the slave owners of the American south (so the concept of an all Jewish all slave-owning town in Georgia strains the imagination), the truth is that there are some interesting philosophical questions being asked by this story. But they are asked so badly, and sandwiched between such trite dialogue that, even this amazing cast of actors and group of designers and the herculean efforts of director Matt Pfeiffer, can’t selvage much from this wreckage.  The issues of race and religion, hypocrisy and our responsibility to our fellow human beings, the crimes we’ve committed in the name of progress and the rights we’ve assumed over other people because we thought we could, all these things resonate deeply in the consciousness of United States citizens, or, at least, they should. But instead of presenting hard truths in a real way, Lopez gives the audience a telenovela, a virtual buffet of plot twists that become, in his hands, clichés. Instead of a cumulative effect we feel as though we’ve been submerging in a landslide of events, none of which, as it turns out, actually end up mattering to us. It’s one thing to examine history and it’s legacy through a play. It’s another to pile on event after event in the hopes that one of them might actually impact  the audience, and think that including slavery is enough for a dramatic narrative or a well made play. Important historic events do not an important piece of theater made, and while it’s vitally important for playwrights to continue to create work which examines our understanding of history and our responsibility to those whose lives have passed but whose stories live on, somehow Lopez has managed to make a play about black Jewish ex-slaves confronting their former owner feel irrelevant, soapy and unimportant. Ultimately, we are left feeling like both we, and American history, have somehow been used.  Which isn’t exactly the goal for a play about the United States in 1865, now, is it?

The Arden Theatre Company’s production of The Whipping Man is playing until December 18th. Tickets are available here.

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