“The Whipping Man: On Equality, Freedom and the Legacy of Slavery

Actors Theatre of Louisville associate artistic director Meredith McDonough makes her directorial debut in her new role this week with Matthew Lopez’s popular drama “The Whipping Man,” set against the backdrop of Passover observances at the end of the Civil War.

The day after General Lee surrendered at Appomattox was the first day of Passover, the eight-day religious observance commemorating the Jews’ escape from slavery in Egypt. In “The Whipping Man,” Jewish Confederate soldier Caleb returns wounded to his family’s ruined home in Richmond to find Simon and John, two of his family’s former slaves, still living in the house.

“It’s a play about these people in a very specific and interesting moment in time, in a way we haven’t looked at before,” says McDonough.

Simon and John, raised in the same house as Caleb, are also Jewish, and the three men must face their uncertain futures and come to terms with shattered families and faith on the brink of a new era. McDonough says the story is “where history ends and life begins.” 

“In that moment, you are both who you were yesterday and who you will be tomorrow, and that’s incredibly difficult to own when all the rules have changed overnight,” says McDonough. 

One painful and complex reality of slavery the story explores is how the characters experienced childhood and family. Caleb and John played together, learned to read together, and in some ways felt like brothers, but John’s childhood disobedience was punished by brutal whippings, a violence that runs counter to the family’s narrative. McDonough says the script delves into the startling ambiguities of family and love in a household in which “we are brothers, and we are not brothers.”

“Suddenly, it’s all about the secrets you’ve been hiding. It’s all about the lies that we’ve been living on. It’s because of what we were and were not talking about before this moment,” says McDonough. “Having equal ground means everything can start to come out. And when skeletons start coming out of the closet ….”

“The Whipping Man” made its world premiere at New Jersey’s Luna Stage Company in 2006, and after a West Coast premiere at San Diego’s Old Globe in 2010 has steadily gained steam across the country. The acclaimed 2011 New York Premiere production at Manhattan Theatre Club won an Outer Critics Circle new play award. This season, it’s the third-most frequently produced play in American regional theater. Although it focuses on a very small subculture of the era, the play raises fundamental questions that are larger than one household’s Passover and still resonate in today’s on-going national conversations about civil rights and equality.

“In a bigger picture, as we look at freedom and what that question means right now, so much of what is at the heart of this play—three people in a moment where everything has changed, there is more freedom, and trying to find out what that is—that is palpably back in the conversation,” says McDonough. “I think America is constantly having to grapple with what equality means.”

“The Whipping Man” opens Thursday and runs through February 2 in the Bingham Theatre. 

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