The setting is a mansion that's been abandoned and essentially destroyed in Richmond, Va., in the waning days of the U.S. Civil War. A wounded Confederate soldier, who is Jewish, returns to his family's home to find only two people there, both former slaves and in the conversation that follows, buried truths are revealed.
In The Whipping Man, playwright Matthew Lopez explores the little known fact that some Jews of that time were slave owners, passing their religion on to the people they owned, but apparently without seeing the contradiction with their own beliefs or indeed problems with the institution of slavery.
Stages Repertory Theatre hosts returning visiting Director Seth Gordon (The Unexpected Man) who is Jewish and was surprised by what he found out when he first read the play two years ago.
"I fancy myself as someone who's pretty educated about Jewish culture and Jewish American life and I had no idea that Jews ever owned slaves and it fascinated me."
He points to the irony in the second half of the play "where these newly emancipated slaves who are Jews are celebrating Passover, celebrating the deliverance of their people from slavery in Egypt."
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The two-act play has been widely produced including off-Broadway (starring Andre Braugher at the Manhattan Theatre Club) and was grabbed up by Stages' Producing Artistic Director Kenn McLaughlin.
"I think it's a play for anybody anyway but it actually has two main constituencies: Jews and African Americans," Gordon said. "The play is not just about those things. It's a study of two men who are contemplating the meaning and responsibilities attached to freedom right at the time they are experiencing it for the first time."
"There is a section of the Passover Seder where people are admonished not to assume this is the story of a long past shadowy event. It's an actuality and in every generation we need to tell this story not just because it happened but because tt could happen again," Gordon said. "At a time in our country when less than half the voters vote and politicians aren't really getting along, watching two men contemplate enfranchisement when it is brand new is a very healthy thing for anybody to do.
Performances of The Whipping Man run April 30 through May 25 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For information call 713-527-0220 or visit stagestheatre.com. $19-$45.