‘The Whipping Man’ scorches stage at Theater J

As two black Jews sit down to a small table hosting their Seder dinner, seated next to them is the white, privileged son of their former master. He’s returned home from fighting for the Confederacy, wounded and weak after an improvised amputation, and he wants no part in the thanksgiving. His service was in vain; the American Civil War has just ended, and as the unlikely trio observes the somber rituals of their makeshift Passover meal, for the first time in their lives, two of the men are now free.
That’s the kind of emotionally acute drama served up in Matthew Lopez’s “The Whipping Man,” a scorching new play at Theater J.

In 1865 Richmond, Va., Lopez reimagines life for former slaves in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. Politically charged with questions of how one keeps his or her humanity — and even acts with charity — when facing such bleak conditions, his plot keenly focuses on the irony of the Jewish slave-holding community in the South.

When Confederate soldier Caleb (Alexander Strain) returns to his father’s home to find it barely standing, it is up to former house servant Simon (David Emerson Toney) to save him from certain death. But John (Mark Hairston), another of the family’s former slaves, questions Simon’s obligation to the family now that they are free men. As Passover approaches and the three men learn of Lincoln’s assassination, they reluctantly reveal secrets from their shared history.

Meeting at the intersection of faith and the harsh realities of survival, “The Whipping Man” is a beautifully written, intimate examination of race and culture under the worst of circumstances. It would be easy to underestimate the earnest quality in Lopez’s work, were it not for his compelling portraiture of hypocrisy and hubris. Here, Jennifer L. Nelson tempers such a muscular script with equally strong stage pictures and Matthew M. Nielson’s deft sound design.

But the real placeholders in this fictionalized account of history are in the performances from Strain, Toney and Hairston. These are expert actors, and they deliver Lopez’s gut-wrenching dialogue with all the wild energy of caged dogs. The result is an evening of intense, heartbreaking theater.

With tour de force acting and scenes plucked from our nation’s biography, “The Whipping Man” is a dark and uncompromising exploration of the choices we make and how they may affect the lives of those around us. In its own ripe subtext, it represents the very best and worst of the human spirit.

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