The subject of Jews in the Southern United States is rarely explored in theater. Sure, we know there were Jewish members of communities there — we’ve seen “Driving Miss Daisy” — but such plays are few and far between.
“The Whipping Man,” on stage at Celebration Arts, combines the subject of Jewish faith with another element of Southern society: slavery.
Set in April 1865, immediately after the end of the Civil War, the play examines what happened when men who had fought for the Confederacy began to return home to discover their homes destroyed and their way of life upended.
As Caleb De Leon (played by Kyle Peck) stumbles into the ruins of his former grand Richmond, Va., home, he is so severely injured that he can barely stand. ( He, in fact, must undergo an amputation of one leg — a scene of primitive medical practice that stops just short of being unbearable.)
The home appears abandoned until Simon (Tory Scroggins) and John (Tarig Elsiddig) — two of the family’s former slaves — appear. The De Leons are a Jewish family, and so are the former slaves. Simon is particularly religious and plans a Seder with the returned Caleb. But the young former “master” seems to have rejected God as a result of something he experienced in the war.
Nevertheless, Simon and John make the preparations, with the resourceful John “finding” the foods and wine required for the service. Not being in charge is a new position for Caleb and one that’s hard to accept. But asking for help is preferable to demanding — and not getting — it. Despite the difficulties of their newfound freedom, the two have developed strength of character.
As more is revealed about the characters, we realize that war and slavery have both left scars that must be healed. Playwright Matthew Lopez explodes one myth of the old Civil War era: the “good” slave owner. Caleb’s father had that reputation because he rarely whipped his slaves. However, he sometimes would send them to “the whipping man” for discipline.
“The Whipping Man” is a powerful indictment of the perversion of religion and the innate inhumanity of slavery. It is about redemption and forgiveness and about responsibility for past bad acts and for future good ones.
James Wheatley directs the production with surety. There are a couple of lags between set changes, but the set itself (designed and built by Wheatley) is spare and totally functional. The acting is strong. Scroggins and Elsiddig appeared together in a recent Celebration Arts production of “Blue Door” and showed excellent chemistry, which they display here as well. Wheatley should be commended, too, for avoiding having the actors attempt Southern accents. Those are almost always bad.
“The Whipping Man” is performed at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, through March 24. Celebration Arts Theatre is at 2727 B St. Tickets are $13 for students, $15 for seniors and $20 general.
For tickets or for more information, call (916) 455-2787 or go to CelebrationArts.net.