The Whipping Man, by playwright Matthew Lopez, depicts an amazing historical convergence: the Civil War’s end, this nation’s long path of freedom and equality’s beginning, as well as the observance of Passover. And resting behind the curtain of promise for the things to come are the shackles of the past for the three characters of Lopez’s play: Caleb, the Jewish Confederate soldier returning home, and Simon and John, two newly-freed-men, once owned by Caleb’s family and still living in the family home.
The actors portraying these three men were at my seder experience last week, along with their director, Francine Thomas Reynolds, and two additional crew members. Francine had reached out to me and other members of the Jewish community of Jackson when New Stage Theatre announced that they would be presenting the play to the community. She was aware of the sensitivity of the play’s subject and wished to not only approach it with care but also to use it as an opportunity to engage in transformative conversations.
Some of those conversations started around our seder table at New Stage Theatre, as we interrupted the story of the Israelite’s freedom from Egypt to point out how the themes present back then were also present in the aftermath of the Civil War (depicted in the play), and – frankly – are still present with us today. These conversations, however, left us asking questions: “Who are our Pharaohs today? Who or what is holding us back from realizing our better selves? And, who is our Moses? Do we need a Moses?
These questions are some of the ones raised in this moving and thought-provoking play The Whipping Man. If you are in the Jackson area between now and March 9, I highly recommend that you come to partake of this unique, dramatic Passover experience. Certainly, you’ll leave inspired to address the challenges and answer the fundamental questions of our time!
“The Whipping Man” runs through this weekend. For more information about getting tickets, go to: www.newstagetheatre.com.
This morning, my friend and co-worker Nonnie asked me if I had seen the Oscars. I told her I had watched some of it.
“Did you see the speech by Steve McQueen, the director of 12 Years a Slave?” She asked. “At the end of the speech, he talked about modern day slaves!”
Steve McQueen’s words, which I looked up this morning, included this statement: “Everyone deserves not just to survive, but to live… I dedicate this award to all the people who have endured slavery. And the 21 million people who still suffer slavery today.”
21 million people who still suffer slavery today. It’s impossible to comprehend the weight of that number. The pain. The lack of human dignity. The violations.
Nonnie was grateful that the issue of human slavery took center stage during this hugely televised event, even if for just one minute. In fact, just the week before, she heard a report about the astronomical number of people living in servitude today, and how not enough is being done.
“What can we do?” She had asked me.
Here in Mississippi, we are abuzz with talk about the upcoming 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer. There is an effort underway to commemorate Freedom Summer and energize people around the four issues the volunteers worked on during Freedom Summer: Voting rights, Education, Health Care and Workers’ Rights. All important issues.
But what about slavery itself? What can we do?
This is one idea came from one of our fellow members of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable: The Jewish Council For Public Affairs (JCPA) is having its Annual Plenum in Atlanta, Georgia, March 8-11 2014. They will be voting on whether to adopt resolutions proposed by various agencies. One of the resolutions that is up for debate and discussion is the Resolution on Combating Human Trafficking. Many communities in our region have delegates representing them at this conference through their local Jewish Community Relations Councils (JCRC) and Community Relations Committees (CRC).
Let’s let our local representatives know that we want modern day slavery to be a priority of our community and that we want to commit our time and resources to advocating for policies and strategies that will help eliminate this inhumane practice.
Let’s talk about this issue not as something past, but as something real and present today, as we prepare to sit around seder tables next month.
Let’s be a part of ending slavery.
Please share your ideas of what our readers can do to help eliminate modern day slavery in the comments below!
By Education Fellow Reva Frankel
Tomorrow brings the end of Black History Month. Most often when we discuss the Jewish connection to this month, we think of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel or other notable Jews involved in the civil rights movement. Rarely do we think back to those Jews, like so many southerners at the time, who owned slaves before the civil war, or the small number of enslaved African Americans who adopted the religion of their captors.
Mathew Lopez’s riveting play, The Whipping Man, explores the lives of these Jews—both enslavers and enslaved—and I had the chance to see it in Charlotte, where it will run through March 9th. The play is set in a dilapidated home in Richmond, Virginia, following the end of the Civil War. Caleb, a wounded Jewish Confederate soldier, returns home to find two former slaves there, Simon and John, who are also Jewish. They must rely on each other, while also figuring out how to relate to each other as equals.
The story itself is captivating, but the larger ideas discussed are what make this play simultaneously horrifying, fascinating and beautiful. The play deals directly with the conflict of Southern and Jewish identities by addressing the inconsistency of Jewish values and the way masters often treated their slaves. It also deals with loss of faith due to war. One thing I loved is that there are many frank discussions about what it means to be enslaved and what it means to be a Jewish slave with a Jewish master.
Just one small spoiler: there is a hilarious scene when all three characters try horse meat (which is not kosher) for the first time.
I highly recommend seeing this play. If you are in the South, you can see The Whipping Man currently in Norfolk, Virginia, through March 17th and in Atlanta March 8th–April 7th. Visit the playwright’s website to see all upcoming and current productions, and/or to buy the script.