"Kiss my emancipated ass" doesn't sound very Civil War-era to me, but I wasn't there. Neither was playwright Matthew Lopez, but his The Whipping Man — directed at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre by Eric Rosen — mostly succeeds in transporting us to the uncertain and still dangerous, chaotic days just after the Civil War's end.
The time is April 13-15, 1865. The place is Richmond, Virginia. The Confederate Army has surrendered to the Union at Appomatox. It's Easter weekend, but it's also Passover, the Jewish holiday that recalls the Israelites' deliverance from slavery in Egypt. (Both holidays take place this year during the production's final weekend, which I'm sure is no coincidence.)
President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, but with the Confederacy's defeat, it has only now gone into effect in the South. The three characters in this story — Caleb, the son of a slaveholding family, and Simon and John, two of the family's now former slaves — are practicing Jews. They're also learning to negotiate an entirely new relationship dynamic in this redefined environment.
Caleb (Kyle Hatley) has made his way home from an extended battle in Petersburg, where he was shot in the leg. He can barely stand. He's recognized (though not at first) by Simon (Michael Genet), the older former slave, who is guarding the DeLeon house. That family has fled with Simon's wife and daughter but asked him to stay behind. They can no longer order him; he's here because he feels a sense of loyalty, of duty, and because he's waiting for the return of his own family so they can embark together on a new life.
John (Josh Breckenridge) is younger — Caleb's contemporary — and more of a loose cannon. He loots other homes, "finding" food and tools and utensils and clothing. He's at a loss now of what to do. And he's angry, more so than Simon, at least at first. In the series of scenes that opens the long first act, set in the nearly destroyed front room of the DeLeon home (Jack Magaw's elaborate set is all high ceilings, tall round windows, and a winding front staircase), the urgent task is trying to save Caleb. He needs surgery, and Simon and John must carry it out themselves.
Act 1 is like a family reunion: becoming reacquainted, catching up, mostly getting along. Except maybe they aren't the same "family" they used to be. And as dysfunction comes to light in Act 2, changing roles rub up against codependence.
Laid atop this difficult weekend at the dawn of Reconstruction is Passover. It's a fascinating parallel, and a profound one, but its two pieces never quite integrate. The Judaism, at least in the first act, feels more random than vital. The characters' biblical names are intriguing choices that don't feel accidental, though their significance is ambiguous. "Caleb" has a Hebrew root and generally means "servant" or "faithful" (the literal translation is "dog"). The family and slaves identify as Jews, but the names "John" and "Simon" echo New Testament figures.
As the shorter Act 2 begins, Simon grieves "Father Abraham." He means Lincoln, who has just died. (On hearing that "the president" has been killed, Caleb asks, "Which one?") Simon recalls a man so tall, he must have been "scared of being up so high." But his despair turns (too soon) to joy as he and John scrap together the symbolic foods and observe the Passover seder, which retells the Exodus — a story with a new, living meaning for these freed men. When Genet's Simon sings "Go Down, Moses," the gospel has real emotional immediacy.
The ancient seder story, however, is about more than the Exodus. It speaks to other types of enslavement, and is retold to each generation, whose members must be reminded as though they themselves were slaves. Simon and John hear it loud and clear, but does Caleb not understand what he utters each year? Is his family no different from other slaveholders? As their relationships come more to light in the candle glow of that darkened, destroyed home, Simon's new world order flips again, and John gains new perspective.
The play's message and the point of its Jewish component aren't always clear, but the call of freedom is brought home through powerful and focused performances.
One small thing I wish I'd been free of the night I saw the play: the distraction of the person next to me drinking repeatedly from an ice-filled cup, clank clank clank. Beverages, like cellphones, belong at intermission.