Passover is, for many of us, an unequivocally joyful holiday. The tablecloth is set with fine china and sparkling silverware, the children are freshly scrubbed, and the seder rejuvenates us with its theme of freedom and rebirth.
But in Matthew Lopez’s celebrated Civil War-era play, “The Whipping Man,” now on view in a gripping production at the Manhattan Theatre Club, a seder held by two recently freed slaves and their former master brings out the darker side of the ritual as well.
We truly celebrate Passover, the play reminds us, only when we realize that our — and the world’s — redemption is far from complete.
“The Whipping Man,” directed by Doug Hughes, is the story of a wounded Confederate soldier, Caleb DeLeon (Jay Wilkison) who returns to his ruined, looted home in Richmond after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in April of 1865 and celebrates Passover with his newly freed slaves, Simon (André Braugher) and John (André Holland), who had been raised as Jews in his household. As the play builds to a climactic seder, the physical and moral deformations of slavery are brought into sharp relief.
In a wide-ranging interview, the Puerto Rican playwright told The Jewish Week that although one of his aunts is Jewish, he had never been to a seder when he decided to write a play about Passover as a metaphor for the liberation of African-Americans from slavery. Lopez, who grew up in the Florida Panhandle, where his family attended an Episcopalian church, realized that he needed to do what he called a “mini-Hebrew school for myself” about what the Jewish springtime holiday is all about.
Lopez first attended a seder when Jane Mandel, the artistic director of the Luna Stage in Montclair, N.J., where the play had its premiere in 2006, invited the cast to celebrate Passover with her and her husband, the actor Frankie R. Faison, who originally played the role of Simon. Lopez compared going to their seder to “the day when the cast of a Chekhov play is taught to use a samovar for the first time.”
In the Twin Cities, where “The Whipping Man” was later staged, Rabbi Joseph Edelheit, a retired congregational rabbi, served as Lopez’s mentor as he continued to revise the script, and Edelheit invited the young playwright to his seder, and spent one Easter Sunday explaining to him the ins and outs of Jewish ritual. Productions followed at theaters in Boca Raton, Fla., and in the Berkshires. By the time the play made it to the prestigious Old Globe in San Diego last year, the seder scene had become the defining moment of the piece.
Lopez originally fantasized that the seder in his play, like a showstopper in a musical, would “be so extraordinarily uplifting, ecstatic and jubilant that it would lift off the stage.” But as the play developed, the seder scene took on a very different feel. “While the showman in me wanted to make it bigger, I couldn’t fight what it wanted to be.” Lopez suggested that the scene be candle-lit, creating an atmosphere (especially in the current production, with sensitive lighting design by Ben Stanton) that he described as “solemn, quiet and intimate” rather than light-hearted and grand.
This felt right, given that the celebratory nature of the seder had become undercut with a sense of how far his suffering characters still needed to go to get out of the long shadow of slavery. “Like religion in general,” Lopez said, “the seder can provide only a temporary catharsis. It may give the strength and ammunition to go into the world and survive, but it can never fix things.” The characters in his play, like the country that will take many generations to be healed from its fractured past, still have a “long and painful journey ahead. When you’re taking on such big themes, there’s no tidy end, but instead a lot of frayed edges and unfinished business.”
Unlike in Christianity, “where there is nothing that you can do at home, or on your own,” Lopez found the seder ritual to be almost infinitely flexible and open to improvisation. “No two seders are the same,” he noted. “It’s yours — you own it, and you can make it anything that you want it to be.” The notion of ownership fascinated Lopez, both in terms of its relationship to slavery and in terms of the way that the play has been embraced by audiences around the country. He remarked that “watching people watch this play is seeing how people own it — there is a sliver of the play that they personalize and take home with them.”
While there is no historical evidence of black slaves in the South being raised as Jews by their Jewish owners, Mandy Greenfield, artistic producer of the Manhattan Theatre Club, praised Lopez for “conjuring a story with such specificity and sensitivity that it speaks to people of all races.” She said that the play “deals in a dazzlingly theatrical way with tectonic shifts in our culture, and with core questions about what it means to be free.”
Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanovsky, the spiritual leader of Ansche Chesed in Manhattan, spent an afternoon helping the cast to think through some of the Jewish issues posed by the play. “I asked them what kind of Jewish consciousness this family might have had and how they might have imparted it to their slaves.” Kalmanovsky noted that the slaves in the play first learned about Passover by serving at their master’s seders, heightening the painful irony that the family talked about suffering while still enslaving other people.
Rabbi Kalmanovsky also faced head on what he called “the ghost of Leonard Jeffries,” referring to the anti-Semitic City College professor who, in the early 1990s, accused Jews of financing the American slave trade. While Jews certainly did own slaves, Rabbi Kalmanovsky said, the vast majority of slaveholders were not Jewish. The rabbi compared the situation in the play of American Jewish slave owners raising their slaves as Jews to 17th-century South Africa, where the Dutch brought both colonial exploitation and Christianity to the native black population. “They robbed them of their native beliefs, but they also gave a vote of confidence in them as human beings.”
The seder in “The Whipping Man,” Rabbi Kalmanovsky said, is an ambivalent one, just as every seder should be. “You eat the bread of freedom and yet you know that Elijah isn’t there yet,” he said. “You have to have the consciousness of both to have a really great Passover experience.”
“The Whipping Man” runs through April 10 at the Manhattan Theatre Club, New York City Center Stage I, 131 W. 55th St. Performances are Tuesday evenings at 7 p.m. and Wednesday through Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., with matinees on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 2 p.m. For tickets, $80, call the box office at (212) 581-1212 or visit www.nycitycenter.org.