TAMPA — The Civil War is over, and a badly wounded Confederate officer returns to his once grand and now destroyed mansion in Richmond, Va. Two of his family's freed slaves are also there amid the ruins. The dialogue among the three includes some rather surprising references.
John, one of the former slaves, quotes the Torah and says that horse meat — the only meat they've got to eat — isn't kosher. It's April, and Simon, the other, older former slave, wants to prepare a Seder for Passover. But Caleb, the wounded officer, lost his faith during the war. There is some Hebrew writing on a wall.
The Whipping Man, a play by Matthew Lopez now being performed by Gorilla Theatre, is drawn from the little-known history that some Jewish slave owners in the South brought up the African-Americans who were their property as Jews. It's a clever idea to set the work during Passover, when Jews celebrate Moses' liberation of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt. The metaphor of the Exodus is the same as that of black freedom in the United States, as many a Negro spiritual makes clear.
Each of the men in Lopez's drama has a secret that is eventually, and painfully, revealed in the Gorilla production, which features an excellent cast and was directed by James Rayfield. Caleb DeLeon (Drew Valins) may not be the honorable son of vanquished Dixie that his story suggests. John (Zo-Vallejo Bryant) knows something horrible about the absence of Simon's wife and daughter. Simon (Kim Sullivan) has kept to himself some ugly episodes during his long relationship with the DeLeon family.
The Seder is the heart of The Whipping Man, and Lopez relates it in idiosyncratic, sometimes comic fashion (hardtack serves as matzah). He works in President Lincoln's assassination, which occurred during Passover, and Simon laments "Father Abraham, who set us free. There's your Moses, John." However, the specifically Jewish connection between former slaves and master is not deeply explored.
The play is most galvanized by the amputation of Caleb's leg, carried out by Simon and John with a saw and plenty of whiskey for the patient, accompanied by blood-curdling screams. The grisly event is skillfully depicted through the use of a drape, shadows and pulsing red light.
Gorilla's production is being done at the Springs Theater in the Sulphur Springs neighborhood. The company left its longtime home in Drew Park at the end of last year. Though the Springs is mainly a recording studio, a section of it converts pretty well to a theater space, with the audience seated on chairs on risers, looking somewhat down on the play. Greg Bierce's artfully cluttered set and Megan Byrne's lighting create a suitably spooky atmosphere.
The Whipping Man is getting quite a few productions around the country, and it is a coup for Gorilla to stage the work by Lopez, who has Tampa ties. In a note in the playbill, he pays homage to his time at the University of South Florida. "It was as a theatre student at USF that the play was hatched in my mind, and this production very much feels like a homecoming," he writes. "Tampa holds a very special place in my heart and imagination as it was, quite simply, where I was first taken seriously as an artist."
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.