The Arty Semite

Slavery to Freedom in Washington and Baltimore

By Lisa Traiger

  • Print
  • Share Share

Kevyn Morrow and Johnny Ramey in Centerstage’s production of The Whipping Man. Photo by Richard Anderson.

“The Whipping Man,” a taut Civil War drama about a wounded Jewish confederate soldier and his encounter with the Jewish slaves owned by his father, has been on a nationwide roll since its world premiere in 2006. With more than a dozen productions from New York to Tampa Bay, San Diego to Philadelphia, Cincinnati to Fort Worth, the three-character play by newcomer Matthew Lopez seems to have a leg up, literally. This month “The Whipping Man” is running both at Baltimore’s Centerstage through May 13, and in Washington, D.C., at Theater J, from April 18 to May 20.

This unusual confluence has allowed the two companies to share dramaturgical resources, and to engage in a bit of friendly competition. Centerstage’s new artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah jokingly opined that because of its proximity, Theater J “will be able to steal the good bits of mine and make theirs better.” Kidding aside, both productions touch a chord, drawing back the curtain on the little-known and little-talked about world of southern Jewry during the Civil War, including confederate soldiers and, reputedly, slaves who practiced Judaism. The play, opening in the waning days of battle, also has a gory coup de theatre to keep audiences riveted.

“This is a play we could not say no to, hard as we tried,” chuckled Theater J artistic director Ari Roth. Jennifer Nelson, the founding artistic director of African Continuum Theater in Washington, D.C., who is directing Theater J’s production, enumerated a few of the reasons, starting with the fact that it’s a small play with three strong lead roles, two for African American men. She added: “The Civil War is an era that Americans have continued interest in … it’s our seminal moment in American history when we had to decide what our nation was going to be: one that allows freedom for everyone, or one that will remain stricken under the purview of race and class.”

In Baltimore, London transplant Kwei-Armah admitted that he wishes he had written “The Whipping Man” himelf, “because it examines slavery and the first days of freedom in an interesting and new way.” Also a playwright, Kwei-Armah said: “Its take on the Civil War, its take on the first days of freedom, its take on inherited faith, its take on what it is to negotiate tomorrow, and its original take on slavery — all these at once really make it appealing to audiences.” With Caribbean roots — Kwei-Armah’s parents are from Grenada — he said that the play’s context spoke directly to him. “It’s in my very DNA to say negotiation with slavery is present. Slavery spawned from the same head whether in England or America … the only difference is that our labor, our tool, was sugar and the tool here was cotton.”

Nelson was moved by the onstage Seder conducted in the war’s immediate aftermath. Aside from being seasonally appropriate, she said, “The playwright’s realization that Abraham Lincoln died during Pesach … wow what great background. There was a lot of research and a lot of imagination, so [a seder] doesn’t seem implausible. For me the big issue is that it is a story that both African Americans and Jews can say, yes, we were both here in this seminal moment in American history, it was our history, too.”

While the Jewish character is not the play’s hero, Roth noted that this should not be a provocative play for the Jewish community: “It’s about an inheritance, a spiritual inheritance and religious one, what we beget. Both directors have wonderful things to say about why and how they are engaging as African Americans in an aspect of Jewish history.”

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Theater J, Theater, The Whipping Man, Matthew Lopez, Lisa Traiger, Kwame Kwei-Armah, Jennifer Nelson

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "Despite the great pain and sadness surrounding a captured soldier, this should not shape the face of this particular conflict – not in making concessions and not in negotiations, not in sobering assessments of this operation’s achievements or the need to either retreat or move forward." Do you agree?
  • Why genocide is always wrong, period. And the fact that some are talking about it shows just how much damage the war in Gaza has already done.
  • Construction workers found a 75-year-old deli sign behind a closing Harlem bodega earlier this month. Should it be preserved?
  • "The painful irony in Israel’s current dilemma is that it has been here before." Read J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis of the conflict:
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels.
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.