Slaves to freedom: ‘The Whipping Man’ explores themes of hope

Lindsay Adams

Caleb and John turn to whiskey as an outlet for their distress, caused by personal struggles.
Caleb and John turn to whiskey as an outlet for their distress, caused by personal struggles.

“The Whipping Man” is an intense, evocative portrait of slavery, war and the trauma that obscures freedom and hope.

Caleb Deleon, played by Kyle Hatley, is colonel in the Confederate army. He returns to his family estate after the surrender at Appomattox and is part of an affluent Jewish family in Virginia.

He has a bullet in his leg, stumbles down the stairs and collapses onto the floor.

He is found by his former slave, Simon, played by Michael Genet.

Simon is now free, watching over what is left of the looted estate for Caleb’s family. John, another ex-family slave, is played by Josh Breckenridge, who returns home after looting other empty houses.

In the opening scene, Simon and John are forced to amputate Caleb’s leg, leaving him helpless and dependent upon the men he previously oppressed. The three wait until Caleb’s family returns for different, unapparent or hidden reasons. During the days confined in the home, the men uncover years of deception and hidden history.

This tricky dichotomy between the newly freed slaves and Caleb, imprisoned by his experiences with slavery, is delicate, threatening to snap at any moment.

Simon, John and Caleb all have individual, silenced secrets, and are tied together in incomprehensible ways until the dramatic denouement.

The play shows intriguing parallels between Passover, the celebration of Moses leading the slaves out of Egypt, and the newfound freedom of African-American slaves.

“The Whipping Man” addresses issues about people justifying immoral actions through religion and the difficulties of personal freedom. The play shows the fear and power incited by freedom. The men will never be free of scars from war and slavery.

As Simon puts it, “You don’t get to be free; you work to be free.”

With freedom, John finds he is responsible for his actions. In the past, he used the excuse of not having choice. He has trouble accepting this and begins to drink heavily. His captors aren’t responsible for his behavior and this scares him. Breckenridge as John perfectly shows his deteriorating cocky veneer, leaving only desperation.

The play shows how slavery not only torments the slave but warps the slaver. Caleb is a broken man, who is unable to recognize other perspectives because this way of life has been so deeply engraved into him. He understands the evil and horror of his actions but clings to what he sees as the beautiful time before the war. Hatley has wonderful expression as Caleb, conveying volumes with even a simple look or a pause.

He had fewer lines than other characters and spent most of his stage time in agonizing pain. His realistic anguish made the audience empathetic.

Genet as Simon was the heart of the show.

Simon is the only character who understands freedom and its responsibilities. His deep faith allows him to persevere where Caleb and John despair. He was a very funny and endearing character but had intense power underneath his good nature.

The set, designed by Jack Magaw, had miraculous power; it felt as if it did not end where the stage did. It established the place of the play and made the situations real. The end of the stage splintered away, and was scratched and worn. The play takes place mostly while it is raining and there is a constant drip of water pouring onto the floor from the holes in the ceiling.

The lighting design by Victor En Yu Tan was incredible, relying often on natural light such as candles, and allowing for a dimly-lit set. The lightning effects with the light design were realistic and emotionally heightened.

“The Whipping Man” is gripping, haunting and ultimately refuses to answer the questions it has raised. As Simon explains, being a good Jew is continuing to ask questions, even when no answers are given.

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