Courtesy of Michael Lamont

The Whipping Man @ Pico Playhouse

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]he civil war has ended after four long and bloody years.

A young, wounded confederate officer, Caleb DeLeon (Shawn Savage), has made his way painfully back to his family plantation outside of the devastated city of Richmond. He hobbles into the front parlor of his childhood home and faints dead away.

Attracted by the noise, Simon (Ricco Ross), a rifle touting black man, comes to investigate and recognizes the son of his former owner lying bleeding before him. Simon has stayed on the wrecked estate awaiting the return of his former master who has with Simon’s wife and daughter.

And if the audience had not been fully prepped by the lobby cards and program notes, I wonder how many would have noticed the kippah, also called a yarmulke, worn by the former slave. So begins Matthew Lopez’s much touted play “The Whipping Man” now at the Pico Playhouse, which tells the story of Jewish slave owners and their converted black chattel.

Now first of all, though I don’t know why, I’m sure the notion of Jews in the Civil War surprises some. But in 1860 there were some 150,000 Jews settled in America, some with heritages dating back to pre-revolutionary times. During the Civil War, upwards of 12,000 Jews served in the armies and navies of the two warring sides.

Of the some 1,000 generals who served on the Union side during the conflict, seven were Jewish. However, relations between the Union and its Jewish citizens were not without its downside, as shown by General Grant’s infamous General Order No.11, banishing all Jews from his military district for trading in contraband cotton – a widespread and very profitable practice which even high ranking Union officers engaged in. Lincoln’s intercession quickly rescinded the order and thus pacified the first protest that united Jewish voices nationally.

While the South had no Jewish generals, it did have the imposing figure of Judah P. Benjamin.

In 1852, the Louisiana House of Representatives elected Benjamin as that state’s senator, only the second Jewish senator in US history. (The first being David Yulee of Florida, his second cousin.)

While serving in the US senate, abolitionist Ben Wade would call the slavery supporting Benjamin, “an Israelite with Egyptian principles.”

With the outbreak of hostilities Benjamin would serve the Confederacy first as Secretary of War and then as Secretary of State. It would be in the second office where Benjamin would make his lasting contribution to the southern cause, one still afflicting us today.

The Richmond government was in desperate need of aid from England, yet slavery had been long abolished in that country and public sentiment was opposed to any assistance being given to the cause of the South. So Benjamin devised the argument that the conflict was not over slavery, but state rights. The mill workers of 19th century Britain, unlike some of our contemporary politicians, were not so simple minded as to be fooled by this spurious reasoning.

So here is the fertile ground that Lopez has chosen for his play, which tells the story of a Seder held between a confederate deserter and his two former slaves who have been raised in the religion of their white master.

Let me start by saying that Mr. Lopez’s play was first produced at the Manhattan Theatre Club Stage with the remarkably talented Andre Braugher (Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Glory) in the lead. Since then it has been produced at the Old Globe and Actor’s Theatre of Louisville among others and has gone on to win an Obie. And to be honest, I haven’t got a clue as to why.

The play is, at best, a cliché ridden, predictable melodrama.

Generally, you’ll find in the majority of new plays a strong opening act that peters out in a weak second act. Mr. Lopez has come close to providing us the reverse. A vague first act establishes the core relationships of two former slaves with their Jewish master, tossing almost casually into the mix that the slaves are both Jews converted at the behest of a former master.

First of all, I don’t buy it. I am a student of history, it is my passion. And while I do not claim to be an “authority” on the Civil War I am quite well studied on it.

I can tell you about Walt Whitman’s service as a nurse for the Union wounded, that the victor of Gettysburg was a Spaniard by birth, that Lincoln and Jefferson Davis were born in Kentucky and they remain the only “presidents” from that state; I can even tell you about the Chinese giant who fought at Pickett’s charge.

And I knew all about the Jewish presence in the Civil War, but converted slaves? That’s a new one on me. So educate me, inform me. But no, I am just forced to go with the premise.

The first act in no way explores this interesting “possibility” nor tells us much history of the characters. The actors suffer for this lack of foundation, none more so than that of Kirk Kelleykahn as John the young slave who was the former playmate of the son of his master.

The second act opens strong with Savage reciting Caleb’s letter written to his lover who is Simon’s daughter. While the revelation comes as no surprise it is perhaps the best writing and strongest moment of the play.

From there Ross is allowed some solid moments of poignancy in the performance of the Seder dinner, but the play remains stagnant and the “shocking” disclosures that come springing out like a room full of Jack-In-The-Boxes at a day school for the hyper active produce little more than sparks.

Howard Teichman’s direction adds nothing to the production. Costume Designer Michele Young has provided tidy little outfits with no appreciation for either the period or reality of the piece, and Kurtis Bedford has done his best to duplicate John Lee Beatty’s exquisitely haunting set from the original production at the Manhattan Theatre Club. His best falls short of the mark.

Go and decide for yourself if there’s an award winning play here.

Forgive me, however, if I recommend painting the doorway to the Pico Playhouse with the blood of a lamb, because this one should be passed over.

Theatre Critic
  1. Dear M.B.,

    Sorry I haven’t responded to your comment sooner, but my schedule was rather cluttered.

    Now in my initial review I didn’t go into great detail as to why I found Matthew Lopez’s “The Whipping Man” so substandard nor will I now.

    Instead I’ll focus on the larger faults as I see them.

    First and foremost, I doubt the authencity of the entire premise of the play. I do not accept the notion of southern Jewish slave owners converting their slaves to Judaism, and one of the faults of the work is that it takes no effort to convince me otherwise.

    Now, granted, just because I’ve never encountered such an occurrence in any of my historical studies doesn’t mean it couldn’t have happen. However in researching the topic for this rejoinder, I discover no support for it whatsoever.

    Not in The International Library of Afro-American Life and History, not in the Historical Statistics of Black America, not in The Ruling Race by James Oakes (considered the definitive work on the subject of American slave owners), not even in the Encyclopaedia Judaica. Nothing.

    Even Mr. Lopez offers only a single and terribly specious bit of evidence to corroborate the veracity of his claim.

    Besides the historical skepticism for anyone with some knowledge of history, there is also a conundrum for anyone with some knowledge of the Bible.

    First the Old Testament’s laws are very specific on the subject of the Hebrews and slave ownership. The Old Testament thoroughly supports the institution, but it imposes two sets of differing rules if the slave is a gentile or a Hebrew.

    The most significant ruling is that Hebrew slaves had to be freed after seven years of servitude.

    Several problems arise from this, but let’s focus on the foremost, shall we?

    To quote the Union general William T. Sherman, “Self interest is the great engine.”

    Now would an individual buy an expensive commodity, say an expensive piece of farm equipment, and modify it in such a way that would intentionally hinder its potential for productivity?

    Of course not, that makes no financial sense. So why would a Jewish slave owner convert his slaves, knowing if he did so that he would have to relinquish them after a seven years of employment? Again that is ludicrous.

    Now you could counter the slave owner in the play did so because he was a devout Jew. Well if that were the case, why did he disobey the Laws of the Torah and hold the slaves Simon and John past the sanctioned time?

    Here you could try to argue that he wasn’t that observant a Jew. All right if he wasn’t, why was it important for him to convert the slaves?

    Not only is the premise utterly lacking in logic, but it ignores the traditional aversion of the Jewish people towards proselytizing. According to the tenets of the Halakhah (Jewish Law) Rabbis are required to vigorously discourage converts. More to the point, conversions can not be done to babies or children. The “ger” (one wishing to convert) must be of an age to choose freely. According to the play the conversion of the two slaves are in violation of these laws.

    Another aspect that Mr. Lopez’s scenario overlooks is the backlash that any such attempts at converting slaves would have had on the Jewish communities which would have been pronounced. Had such conversions taken place Christian outrage would have filled the newspapers of the day.

    It was mainly the Sephardic Jews who established the first American congregations and they explicitly forbade any effort towards conversion and this attitude didn’t change till the “Reform” movement in Judaism well into the late 1880’s.

    All this brings the play’s concept into serious doubt.

    Let’s look at another element in the play which reflects on Mr. Lopez’s historical credibility.

    The first act is set, the program reads, “The evening of April 14, 1865”. The second act begins on “The evening of April 15, 1865”. The first act ends with the character of Caleb, the son of the Jewish plantation owner having his badly wounded leg amputated by one of his former slaves, then less than 24 hours later the character of Caleb is sitting up in bed, fully engaging the other characters and even participating in a Seder?

    Think about it.

    The character supposedly had his limb sawed off arteries sewed shut and muscles tied off by someone lacking in any medical training, the procedure performed without any anesthetic or pain relief except for alcohol and with nothing to address the threat of infection. Then that character responds to the ordeal as if it were nothing more than a splinter removal.

    This is beyond inane.

    Anyone who did the minimum of research on the period would learn that those who under went the loss of a limb in the civil war were subject to a long, agonizing and fever racked recovery, if recover they did.

    One in four of those who had a limb surgically removed died, including the Confederate general Stonewall Jackson and he received the best medical treatment of the day.

    Considering that this monumental inaccuracy could easily have been addressed by the playwright simply by extending the time span between the two acts makes it appears not a question of “creative license” but an indication of unforgivable ignorance.

    Mr. Lopez, it seems did not do the necessary historical or biblical research, if he did any at all; a glaring flaw.

    Replying to your specific comment, I really wouldn’t know as I’ve never attempted to have my work published. Now I have been approached by both an Italian and a German publishing firm who were interested in a work of mine.

    I can’t recall what became of the Italian offer, but the German one disappeared in the dust of the wall falling.

    I know it’s hard for tyros to understand this, but publishing is not the all consuming goal that drives me. Doing good work is. And the work is very good.

    To think that being published confirms the merit of a work only shows one is ignorant of the writing career of Winston Churchill, someone I’m sure you’ve never heard of. *

    But if I take your inference correctly what your alluding to is that here’s this brilliant and utterly flawless play I’ve seen, but I’m so wretched that it’s been published and I’m not, that I’ve deliberately written it an unjustifiable bad review. Ha-ha-ha! (Please imagine me twirling my long black villainous mustache.)

    Well the trouble with this assumption would have been apparent with a little research on your part. If you had taken the time to read some of my other reviews, you’d have found I have praised, highly praised, works that are just as published as I am not.

    In the final analysis, my opinions are my opinions – deal with it.

    My opinion of “The Whipping Man” is that it was an amateurish work and bogus history.

    And while I welcome all comments and discussion, I would advise you not to question the integrity of others, when your competency to do so is so questionable.

    Your pal,


    *(No not Winston S. Churchill the British statesman, I’m talking about Winston Churchill the American author. See, I said you’ve never heard of him.)

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