It the end of the Civil War when the play “The Whipping Man” opens. A young Confederate soldier who is severely wounded has just made it back home only to find that life as he knew it is gone forever.
The production is being staged in February by Farmer’s Alley Theatre in Kalamazoo. “The Whipping Man” is the first play written by Matthew Lopez. Kalamazoo director D. Terry Williams says the work is multi-faceted and the playwright takes on many historical issues.
“So, how can a young, late-20’s Hispanic write about the Civil War, about African Americans, about slavery, about the relationship between the aristocracy of the Confederacy and their slaves, and then you add on the layer that they have all been raised as Jews," says Williams. "This action occurs during not only the week that General Lee surrendered at Appomattox, but it is also Passover.”
Within minutes of getting home to his family’s ransacked plantation, Caleb is found by former slaves Simon and John. Simon sees right away that Caleb’s injury is life-threatening. To save the young soldier’s life Simon and John get Caleb drunk and prepare to saw off his leg.
Ben Riegel plays Caleb. Losing his leg is just one hurdle his character faces as he comes home from war.
“You get the sense in this play,” Riegel says, “looking at it from his point of view…I think a lot of what happens before the play is his idea that if he can just get home, everything will be O.K., and it isn’t.”
The slaves that been owned by Caleb’s family are still squatting on the property, with no other place to go. Rico Bruce Wade plays Simon.
“Slavery disappeared, but also that paradigm, their lifestyle disappeared," he says. "The way that they related to other people and to one another is all gone. Do they have the integrity and the wisdom to create the next new life, to put the world back together, do they have the strength to forgive past wrongs and move on?”
Simon and John have different ideas for the future. Wade says Simon retains a lot of hope.
“Simon is perhaps is the emotional core of the piece, but the challenge is to not play it simplistically," Wade says. "He is not magical. He is a real flesh and blood man. He has hopes and perhaps his hopes won’t be realized.”
John, played by Scott Norman, finds becoming a suddenly former slave a big adjustment.
“Simon and John both have very different dreams about what freedom is going to allow them to do,” he says. “John is an embittered, troubled soul, and he makes some very bad choices about what to do with his freedom.”
Norman says even though “The Whipping Man” is set in 1865, some issues have not changed.
“People are still going through the same struggles, asking themselves the same questions about spirituality, freedom and identity,” says Norman.
“The Whipping Man” is on stage at Farmer’s Alley Theatre in Kalamazoo through February 24.