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'The Whipping Man' sheds new light on slavery in America
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Actors Brett Gentile (left), John W. Price and Jeremy DeCarlos in "The Whipping Man," which runs at Actor's Theatre of Charlotte (Photo courtesy of Actor's Theatre of Charlotte).

In the program for “The Whipping Man” — a play that runs at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte through March 9 — a guide translates phrases from Hebrew and defines Civil War-era terms. So, what’s going on?

The work grew from the discovery by playwright and Civil War buff Matthew Lopez of a historical document that mentioned Passover beginning just after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Through the story of two former slaves and their former master sharing Passover Seder while discovering the meaning of family, the Actor’s Theatre production lets audiences take a journey through a seldom explored aspect of the Civil War.

“It’s emotionally difficult but uplifting at the same time,” said director Chip Decker.

“The Whipping Man” is set in the ruins of a once-grand Richmond, Va., home, where Caleb, the owner’s son, returns badly wounded from the battlefield to find two remaining occupants: former slaves Simon, the caretaker, and the younger John, who has plans of his own. “All of a sudden you have these three very unique personalities, who were a family by faith, all back under the same roof but under completely different circumstances,” said Decker.

“What separates this story from your typical Civil War-era story is that the family is Jewish, and they raised their slaves Jewish. You have this interesting paradox because each year the Jewish family would sit down and have their Seders and talk about the exodus and next year, we’ll be free,” Decker said, “meanwhile, all the time owning slaves.”

John W. Price, who plays Simon, was born in Los Angeles in 1936, and said he read a lot about the Civil War, Lincoln and the Constitution after moving to the South in 1997. “I played a slave in 1999 at [the historic site] Reed Gold Mine,” he said. In “Whipping Man,” he said, the challenge was trying to put the pieces together, “how the slaves had acquired this Jewish religion and made it their own.”

Jeremy DeCarlos, a South Carolina native, said he tried to show the play’s “John” as “playful, but vastly intelligent. I wanted to bring some dignity to the ‘trifecta’ that we have.” He called the journey that the characters travel “heartbreaking” as they explore issues of “betrayal, the loss of trust and how detrimental secrets can be.”

“When I came into this play, I thought Caleb was a good guy,” said Brett Gentile of his character. “I wanted to play a good guy.” But as the play went on, “after talking to Jeremy and talking to John,” he said it dawned on him that Caleb was well aware of the realities of slavery. Gentile, who was raised in the Netherlands and Germany by an American military father and Dutch mother, said that he tried to focus on the immediacy of what was happening in the relationships among the three men.

“Whether you’re white or black, it’s history,” director Decker said. “It definitely means a lot more to this area to have a show like this.” He said “Whipping Man,” a story “that is unique and fresh and tells a whole different perspective,” was a good fit for Actor’s Theatre, “just the fact that I think it speaks to so many people and opens the possibility for discussion. People can have a really cool heart-to-heart talk about what was it like and have we evolved.”

The regular talk-back feature at Actor’s Theatre [where, full disclosure, Mary C. Curtis serves on the board] is a big part of the “Whipping Man” run. Following the show, members of the cast come out on stage and invite audience members to stay and share their thoughts.

“Because of the questions that the show raises, the opportunities for discussion — it’s just too ripe to let it hang there,” said Decker. “When you have people talking, all of a sudden they’re not strangers anymore.”

For more information or to purchase tickets for "The Whipping Man," visit the Actor's Theatre website.

Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning Charlotte, N.C.-based journalist, is a contributor to The Washington Post's “She the People” blog, The Root and theGrio. Her “Keeping It Positive” segment airs Wednesdays at 7:10 a.m. on Fox News Rising Charlotte. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and was national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter.

This article is part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts.

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October 10, 2015
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