Matthew Lopez’s “The Whipping Man” takes pages from history both ancient and merely old to weave a story of irony.
Sacramento Theatre Company opens its production this week with Buddy Butler directing the drama set in the three days immediately after the end of the Civil War. Also central to the story is Passover – the commemoration of how Israelites escaped slavery in Egypt – which in 1865 began the day after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, Va.
The action takes place in a nearly destroyed Richmond, Va., mansion to which Confederate officer Caleb DeLeon (played here by Sean Patrick Nill) returns badly wounded. He finds his family missing and two former slaves, Simon (Michael J. Asberry) and John (Anthony Simone), living there. A significant part of the play involves a Seder dinner conducted by the former slaves who were converted to Judaism by the DeLeon family.
A complex irony unfolds as the man who held other men in bondage shares the Seder dinner with those same men, and they now get to experience the Exodus story from a very different perspective.
Lopez’s play rocked the theater world as few works do, although its success was a slow build. After the 2006 world premiere production in New Jersey, it was three years before the drama had another production and then two more years before a 2011 New York production starring Andre Braugher that put the playwright on the map. There have been more than 40 productions since then, and Lopez now has several commissions for new works at theaters around the country.
At a recent rehearsal, Rabbi Joel Zeff of Kenesset Israel Torah Center watched the actors as they went through the Seder scene. “They asked me to come and observe to make sure it has a certain authenticity to it,” Zeff said.
After the actors had performed the scene, the rabbi enthusiastically gave them high marks. He then spoke about the significance of the Seder, which is observed in late March or early April according to where it falls on the Hebrew calendar.
“The Passover meal is highly ritualized. The whole point of the Seder is to not just remember something that happened in the ancient past, but celebrating freedom and remembering the bitterness of slavery and making sure we integrate those values and appreciate what freedom is about,” Zeff said.
“It’s actually an attempt at reliving it – it’s actually theater – so all the foods that are served, the different customs are attempts at reenacting different things.”
The rabbi explained there is an exaggerated slouching posture people assume while eating because it’s an imitation of how a free person would lie on a couch while eating.
“We’re reliving it theatrically by props, by symbols, by actions so that it doesn’t become the distant memory of something that was, but it becomes a ongoing presence in our consciousness of the value and dignity of human freedom,” Zeff said.
“In the performance itself, they’re actually doing something which is religious theater.”
Zeff was particularly impressed with how Asberry and Simone handled the language.
“They were saying Hebrew words, and it was beautiful,” Zeff said. “There was just one word – and it’s a hard word to pronounce because it’s a letter that doesn’t occur in English, anyway. It’s a fascinating plot, and it’s clear the actors’ souls are into it.”
Butler, who helmed STC’s fine production of Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold … and the Boys” two years ago, has wanted to direct “The Whipping Man” since he first read it.
“I think the writing is amazing, but what really drew me to it was this unknown story,” Butler said. “Richmond being the highest concentration of Jewish slave owners. They were not plantation owners, they lived in the town, but these Jewish households had slaves they had converted to Judaism.”
Butler said the Jewish slave owners used the Torah in much the same way Christian slaveholders used the Bible by pulling out certain passages to justify their actions.
He said the end of the Civil War 150 years ago is not so long ago as some may think.
“Maybe it makes sense that some things are the way they are still today.”
Call The Bee’s Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscrowder.
THE WHIPPING MAN
What: The Matthew Lopez drama, directed by Buddy Butler and starring Michael J. Asberry, Sean Patrick Nill and Anthony Simone
Where: Sacramento Theatre Company, Pollock Stage, 1419 H St., Sacramento
When: Previews through 2 p.m. March 28. Opens 8 p.m. March 28; performances 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through May 3.
Appropriate for high school ages and up, due to adult language and themes.