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The Whipping Man

The scars of slavery—physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual—from biblical Egypt to the antebellum South, provide explosive drama in the regional premiere of Matthew Lopez' The Whipping Man at Curious Theatre Company.

(Front to back) Sean Scrutchins as Caleb and Laurence Curry as John
(Front to back) Sean Scrutchins as Caleb
and Laurence Curry as John
Photo: Michael Ensminger
In the aftermath of Lee's surrender at Appomattox, a wounded Caleb (Sean Scrutchins) returns to Richmond, Virginia, to find two of his former slaves—Simon (Cajardo Lindsey) and John (Laurence Curry)—at the ruins of his ancestral home.

In short order, Lopez' story blasts open the adrenaline flood gates, putting our hearts in full alert mode and keeping them there to the end.

Caleb and his family are Jewish slaveholders.1 The juxtaposition of slaves and slave owners, in this case where Caleb's family taught their slaves to read and to practice Judaism, provides rich metaphors when the three men celebrate Passover in April, 1865, especially during the tradition Seder praise to G-d for release of the Jews from the bondage of the Pharaoh.

(Left to right) Laurence Curry as John and Cajardo Lindsey as Simon
(L to R) Laurence Curry as John
and Cajardo Lindsey as Simon
Photo: Michael Ensminger
The political and economic relationship between Jews and Africans is complex: each has suffered persecution for different reasons; the Ashkenazi Jews, of mixed Semitic and European blood, obviously found it easier, than Africans with European blood, to establish themselves in the U.S., and thus, when abandoning their urban ghettos, became slumlords to African-Americans; yet, the two ethnicities were partners during the civil rights movement; now, when an increasing percentage of Africans and African-Americans have adopted Islam, the relationship is often strained. On the other hand, the Exodus story from the Torah (Old Testament to Christians) is about the Jews being slaves of Africans.

Yet, this story is not about the history and challenges between Africans and Jews; it is about freedom and slavery. As Simon notes during one of his power-packed sermons, "We must not rest until the chains of all men are broken." These wise words apply directly to our situation in this country, where equality between races and for all genders and sexual orientations is mistaken for freedom. "There is more than one way to be a slave," says Simon, and if he were an economist, he could tell you that debt slavery (to the banks that own the currency, corporations, and governments) is one of those ways. So, we must still join in the song with Simon and demand, "Let my people go!"

Simon is the elder of the three, having served Caleb's father and, along with his wife, helped raise Caleb and John. Although Simon cannot read, he has memorized much of the Jewish scriptures by ear and heart. Lindsey's eloquence, when reciting from the Torah and the Haggadah (the Passover liturgy) is sublime, but when he couples this with African-American spirituals, the compounded effect is transcendent. Scrutchins' embodiment of physical pain is visceral, which he magically transforms into mental torture as well. Curry's bravado as the estranged outsider and angry young man is a wild card that amplifies the drama and punctuates it with humor.

Cajardo Lindsey as Simon
Cajardo Lindsey as Simon
Photo: Michael Ensminger
That Lindsey joined the cast less than a week before opening night and performed so brilliantly is a testament to his talent and that of his cast mates and directors Kate Folkins and Chip Walton. The crafts work is astounding as well: Markas Henry's distressed set; Shannon McKinney's and Brian Freeland's emotionally charged lighting and sound design; Michael Duran's evocative props; and Todd Debreceni's gritty makeup and special effects.

Curious Theatre Company's presentation of The Whipping Man runs through February 15th. For more information: 303-623-0524 or www.curioustheatre.org.

Bob Bows

Footnotes:

1 Historically speaking: Jews possessed far fewer slaves than non-Jews in every British territory in North America and the Caribbean, and in no period did they play a leading role as financiers, ship owners, or factors in the transatlantic or Caribbean slave trades. [Wim Klooster (University of Southern Maine): Review of Jews, Slaves, and the Slave Trade: Setting the Record Straight by Eli Faber, in "Reappraisals in Jewish Social and Intellectual History," William and Mary Quarterly Review of Books, Volume LVII, Number 1, Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture (2000).] Jews accounted for 1.25% of all Southern slave owners, and were not significantly different from other slave owners in their treatment of slaves. ["Suriname", The Historical Encyclopaedia of World Slavery, Volume 1, by Junius P. Rodriguez, p. 385.]

 

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