With The Whipping Man, Matthew Lopez has written an unusual play about a little-known part of African-American and Jewish history. On Passover 1865, three men — a wounded Confederate officer and two freed slaves who were raised as Jews — sit down for Seder in a once grand but now ruined house in defeated Richmond, Va.
A hit off-Broadway in 2011, Lopez's play has quickly become a hot property that draws raves. "Succeeds with an uncanny maturity in using sharply drawn characters and rich metaphor to wrestle (August) Wilson-like with epic American issues of race, religion and responsibility," wrote Tim Gihring in Minnesota Monthly. "Someone must succeed Wilson; it might as well be Lopez."
The Whipping Man is the latest production by Gorilla Theatre, which moved out of its longtime home in Tampa's Drew Park at the end of last year. Now the company, with a newly constituted board, is trying out a probably temporary location, the Springs Theater, more known nowadays as a recording studio than a performance space.
"Three months wasn't enough time to find a conventional theater, but this is a cool space, and we'll see how it goes," said Lynne Locher, president of the Gorilla board. "We really like the ambience."
Even without an ideal space, the company forged ahead with the production because it wanted to do the regional premiere of the play by Lopez, a University of South Florida graduate. Directed by James Rayfield, the cast includes Kim Sullivan, Andrew Valins and Zo Vallejo-Bryant.
The Whipping Man opens tonight at the Springs, 8029 Nebraska Ave., Tampa. 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Runs through April 1. $15-$25, with $10 student rush tickets a half-hour before curtain. (813) 879-2914; gorillatheatre.com.
John Fleming, Times performing arts critic