Jews and slavery: ‘The Whipping Man’ in New York
When slaves in Egypt
“Baruch atto adonay…” The sacred Hebrew prayer may have been familiar to many of us in the audience, but the scene in which it was recited – in Matthew Lopez’s inspiring new play, The Whipping Man– was not.
The year is 1865, the place is Richmond, Virginia, and the play opens on April 11, two days after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. Caleb de Leon, a wounded Confederate soldier, has returned from the war, near death from a severely gangrened leg.
He opens the door of his ancestral home and finds it in ruins, ravaged by the crossfires of the Civil War. He is greeted by Simon, one of his family’s slaves, who has hidden throughout the war in his master’s house, and, moments later, by John, a younger slave of the de Leon household. Over the next few days, the trio comes to terms with the past and deals with the cataclysmic events of the present.
The aftermath of the Civil War is familiar to all Americans, thanks to films like Gone With The Wind and Glory, as well as countless other memorable works. Why, then, did Lopez choose these five days in American history in particular to dramatize? Why is the night of April 15 different from all other nights?
First, it’s the night after the assassination of Lincoln, the president who has changed American history– as well as Simon and John’s lives, by rendering them free men. Second, it happened to have been the first night of Passover.
Why is that relevant to the play? Because Caleb de Leon is Jewish, and so are his former African-American slaves, Simon and John, raised by Caleb’s parents to be devoutly observant. Although they’re free men now, Simon is determined to prepare the traditional Seder, in accordance with the traditions established by his former masters.
From the moment in the first act that Simon makes his intentions clear, the play becomes a rich parable of the test of faith, family, freedom and the brotherhood of man. In the play’s culminating scene, the Seder becomes a metaphoric gathering of the family of man, in which Caleb must answer for the sins of his fathers. The table is set, the candles are lit– John has stolen them, along with china and silver, from a neighboring estate that has been plundered. Raw collard greens are substituted for parsley. Simon produces some hardtack, which will serve for the matzoh, as well as the family Haggadah, a gift from Caleb’s parents and the legacy that he guards proudly.
“The first Seder was improvised, like ours,” says Simon. “Let all who are hungry come and eat; let all who are in need come celebrate Pesach. This year we are slaves, next year we are free.”
As these familiar phrases and the Four Questions are recited and Simon sings a stirring “Let my people go,” the parallel between the freeing of the Jewish slaves and the freeing of the African American slaves achieves a soaring, moving poetic resonance.
This last supper of the three remaining members of the de Leon household produces a cascade of revelations that penetrate to the core of what family really means to these three men. John reveals that while Caleb was away fighting, Caleb’s father sold Simon’s wife Elizabeth and daughter Sara into slavery, unbeknownst to Simon.
Next, Caleb learns that Sara had been pregnant, and the father was none other than Caleb himself, making Simon the grandfather of Caleb’s child and bonding former slave and master by blood. Traumatized, Simon vows to set out and find his family and his new grandson. His parting revelation is that John is actually the illegitimate son of Caleb’s father. As the tattered, war-torn curtain falls, he leaves Caleb and John to face the fact that they are actually blood brothers.
Echoes of Fugard
In this final moment I was struck by the powerful parallels between Lopez’s new play and Athol Fugard’s three-character masterpiece of apartheid in South Africa, Master Harold and the Boys, which deals with the same themes of family, brotherhood and man’s capacity for cruelty. (Lopez’s title refers to “the whipping man”, a feared figure in the Richmond community to whom de Leon sent his slaves, including Simon and John.) I was also reminded of two other New York productions this season: Kander and Ebb’s The Scottsboro Boys on Broadway, and John Guare’s A Free Man of Color at Lincoln Center, both offering disturbing revelations in African-American history.
So home I went, dazed by this play’s events, eager to discover whether The Whipping Man was a powerful fictional melodrama, or had the playwright Matthew Lopez (Episcopalian born, of Puerto Rican, Polish and Russian descent, raised in Florida) done his historical homework? Happily, I soon discovered, it’s the latter.
‘The Southern way’
When Lincoln took office in 1861, the total American Jewish population was 150,000 (out of 31.4 million), of whom one-third lived in the South. Significant Jewish communities flourished in Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, New Orleans, Memphis and Richmond. As recent immigrants, most American Southern Jews were shopkeepers, tradesmen, peddlers, watchmakers, shoemakers and tailors (eventually their descendants would found major commercial enterprises, like the Lehman brothers, who started out as Alabama cotton brokers). Some had already achieved prominence; the first Jewish Senator, for example, was David Levy Yulee from Florida. Only a very few Southern Jews owned plantations. Roughly 6,000 fought in the Civil War.
And yes, some Southern Jews did own slaves. “That was the Southern way,” the Brandeis University history professor Jonathan D. Sarna (an adviser to this production) told The New York Times.
Ultimately, the question of Jews as slave owners is the one that remains, at least for me as a Jew, to ponder. Given our history, how could we have possibly done so? A good question for this year’s Passover Seder table.♦