The Whipping Man
By Matthew Lopez, Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah
At Center Stage through May 13
The cinema has many obvious advantages over live theater: closeups and jump cuts, special effects and location shooting. But theater has its own assets, none of them more important than the physical presence of the actors and props in the same room as the audience. Our minds may think there’s no difference between actual bodies and the patterns of light and shadow thrown on a screen, but our senses know otherwise.
When Caleb (Michael Micalizzi), a Confederate captain, limps through the door of his Richmond, Va., home in the powerful Center Stage production of Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man, those senses register the pain of the bullet hole in his left leg and the fear in his breathing in a way they wouldn’t in a movie theater. One feels the damp chill of the rain pouring through the holes created by artillery shells in the roof. And when Simon (Kevyn Morrow), Caleb’s former slave, pulls out a saw to cut off that gangrene-infected leg, there’s a solidity to those steel teeth and that discolored flesh, less than 80 feet from where we’re sitting, that makes us flinch.
This is the first show that Kwame Kwei-Armah has directed since becoming Center Stage’s new artistic director (though he did direct Naomi Wallace’s Things of Dry Hours there in 2007), and he displays an impressive instinct for the physical reality of the theater. Gone are the intellectual conceits that so often marred his predecessor’s directing. In their place is an intense focus on real bodies in real space—the pain those bodies suffer, the desires that spark them into action, and the rituals they perform to control those sufferings and cravings.
It helps, of course, that Lopez has given Kwei-Armah a terrific script, an American version of Athol Fugard’s Master Harold. . .and the Boys. Like Harold in Fugard’s South African play, Caleb grew up as the surrogate son of Simon and the playmate of former slave John (Johnny Ramey) but was also the owner of both. Like Fugard, Lopez recognizes that there are genuine bonds of affection between the three men and that those ties have been poisoned by the master/servant relationship. Lopez stubbornly refuses to let the affection cancel out the poison, or vice versa, forcing love and bitter resentment to coexist in ways that are essential to the American experience.
Caleb limps through the front door on April 13, 1865, just four days after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, meaning that Simon and John have been ex-slaves for less than a week. When Caleb reflexively starts issuing orders, Simon pauses, unsure whether to correct his former master while the latter’s leg is throbbing with pain. Simon lets it slide a few times, then finally says that things have changed; Caleb shouldn’t be telling him what to do, but asking him. Caleb replies, “Are you asking me if my leg has to come off or are you telling me?” “I’m telling you,” Simon replies. “So we’re each telling the other what to do,” Caleb responds. “I guess that’s how it’s going to be from now on.”
Simon, a towering man with a salt-and-pepper beard and a brown vest, is old enough to be Caleb’s father, and actor Morrow brings a paternal bearing, alternately stern and forgiving, to the role. Morrow has the kind of calming yet implacable voice that might convince you to let him cut off your leg. John, by contrast, is roughly Caleb’s age, and his former best friend. Ramey, a short, athletic man in a dark beard, gives John a slightly unsteady swagger as he takes swigs from a whiskey bottle and brings home eggs, books, and carpets that he has “discovered” or “liberated” from nearby abandoned houses.
Simon keeps his resentments over slavery buried beneath his even-keeled stoicism until they erupt in a memorable scene near the end of the play, but John wears such resentments openly, just as he proudly wears the long-tailed jackets that once belonged to the masters of those nearby houses. When John retells the stories about his whippings, he does so tauntingly, and Micalizzi as Caleb flinches as painfully and helplessly as when Simon pours sterilizing whiskey into his wound.
Caleb’s family is Jewish, and Simon and John adopted their masters’ religion just as the slaves of Christian masters did—just as in Africa the slaves of Muslim masters did. Ironically, Caleb finds himself doubting his faith after his prayers go unanswered during the Battle of Petersburg, while Simon and John remain faithful. It’s Passover weekend, so the three men create a Seder dinner out of army hard tack, garden greens, and stolen wine.
It’s an unusual Seder, with readings from the Haggadah intertwined with singing of the old Negro spiritual “Go Down, Moses (Let My People Go).” Both the scripture and the song recall slavery’s suffering and liberation’s joy, whether in Egypt or Virginia. It’s the kind of musical ritual around a household table that marks a high point in so many of August Wilson’s plays, and Kwei-Armah and his three gifted actors bring it fully to life. And because we’re in the same room as the presiding, charismatic Simon, we are pulled into the ceremony as well, reminded of past injustice and encouraged toward future reconciliation.