‘Whipping Man’ takes rare look at Confederate Jews

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Josh Landay and Ro Boddie in Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s 2013/14 Stiemke Studio production of

The Whipping Man begins like a lot of other fictional works set in the post-Civil War South: The scion of a slave-holding family returns home, wounded in defeat, to find that two of his family’s former slaves are the only remaining residents of the plantation. The three spend the next few days pondering their futures in a radically altered world.

But writer Matthew Lopez’s play has a twist that fundamentally shifts the terrain of his story: The plantation-owning soldier and his former slaves are Jewish, and the perplexed trio grapple with their futures amid the ruins while coincidentally preparing for a Passover Seder, a ritual Jewish meal that celebrates the Hebrews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt.

Director Brent Hazelton says the coincidence is true to history. In 1865, Passover began within the week of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, and one-third of the United States’ Jewish citizens (about 50,000, he estimates) lived in the South.

Hazelton is not aware of any historical evidence that Southern slaves were also raised Jewish, as both the older Simon (James Craven) and the younger John (Ro Boddie) are in the play. But it’s entirely possible, since Jews accounted for 1.25 percent of all Southern slave owners. And it certainly makes for an interesting dramatic setting.

“You have this really interesting question: With a belief system that is so firmly grounded in a liberation from slavery, how do these people become slaveholders?” Hazelton asks. “Then, you’ve got people who are actually slaves and actually Jews at the same time, trying to work out the larger theological implications of that.”

And work it out they must, from the con- fining, shadowy wreckage of their former home, a haunting combination of refuge and prison that none of them can escape. Caleb DeLeon (Josh Landay), the returning

Confederate soldier, is physically trapped, limping into the home with a gangrenous leg that must eventually be amputated. But neither Simon nor John can leave either, Hazelton says, as they haven’t decided whether to stay and work for DeLeon for wages or embark into the changed world around them.

Add in the fact that each possesses a volatile secret, and the room in which they’re trapped becomes even more claustrophobic.

Hazelton says the play feels like a mix of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and August Wilson — high praise indeed, but praise that he says Lopez earns. “There’s really strong emotional hooks for the individual characters, and everybody’s wrestling with these huge ideas; but there’s also a lot of interesting, really fundamentally American questions in there, about how we let one another into our lives,” he says. “It’s a really smart, really complex play.”

Much of the complexity comes from how Lopez’s characters tackle the elephant in the room — the emancipation that has forever changed both the country and the three individuals. Simon and John have different attitudes toward the change. John feels entitled to “equality in the strongest sense of the word,” a perspective that grates against Simon’s cautious pragmatism. Simon believes that freedom can’t be given, but that it must be earned.

While Caleb’s enlistment in the Confederate army was based more on defending

his homeland than defending slavery, the institution is still all he’s ever known, and Hazelton says he spends much of the play wrestling with the implications of slavery as his family’s legacy. The three characters’ shared faith colors their opinions and reactions as each tries to determine what his religious and moral obligations demand of him.

Hazelton says unanswered questions put the trio in a holding pattern, preventing them from moving forward.