A Civil War-era drama with a small cast and big story opens the second half of Clarence Brown Theatre’s 2013-14 season. “The Whipping Man” plays on select dates Jan. 30-Feb. 16 at the University of Tennessee’s 400-seat Carousel Theatre.
The debut work by playwright Matthew Lopez has grown in popularity since its 2011 off-Broadway premiere, and it’s now been produced throughout the United States. Although the 150th anniversary of the 1861-65 Civil War have triggered the appearance of many related programs and projects, “Whipping Man” tells a story that’s not as well known as most.
The play is set in April 1865, just after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrenders and the war ends. Badly wounded Confederate Jewish soldier Caleb DeLeon, played by first year master’s of fine arts acting student Steve Sherman, returns to his family’s Richmond home.
The property is ruined and abandoned but for two of the DeLeon’s now former slaves — Simon, played by visiting artist Daver Morrison, and John, played by third year MFA acting candidate Tramell Tillman. Like Caleb, Simon and John are Jewish, having been raised in their former owner’s faith.
With their roles changed and their futures unclear, the three men mark the end of a war and a way of life. As Jews, they also celebrate Passover with a simple, improvised Seder dinner. As American slaves were being freed by the end of the war, April was also time for the Passover marking Israelites’ emancipation from slavery in ancient Egypt. In 1865, Passover began April 10, one day after Lee’s surrender.
As the three men celebrate Passover, they also uncover what’s described as a “tangle of secrets” that help bring the play to its climax.
The play contains strong language and content and uses strobe lights. It’s not recommended for children younger than high school age.
With only three actors Morrison says that “the majority of time all three of us are on stage. And there’s a lot of material for the three of us. You are in character the whole time; you have to think of yourself as being on the entire time.”
“The Whipping Man” is directed by UT associate theater professor John Sipes, who last season directed the two-man play “Red.” Sipes worked with Morrison at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in a production of “Othello” in which Morrison played the title role. In addition to his stage work, Morrison has appeared on such television shows as “Days of Our Lives” and “24.”
Sipes asked Morrison to audition for the role of Simon, the older ex-slave who in many ways is the story’s moral compass. “I hadn’t heard about it (“The Whipping Man”) until John told me about it. I got the script myself and read it and really loved the story,” said Morrison.
“Simon is a lot of great things. He’s a father and a husband, and he’s a former slave who has this great faith and great compassion. He has a lot of wisdom to share and a very hope-filled way of looking at the world.
“Simon is a very practical person, and he somehow over the years found a way, and I think through his faith, to adapt to his role as a caretaker and servant in this household that has enslaved him. Now that he is free he does begin to make plans for himself and his family But what he learns, over the course of the play, like a lot of freed slaves learned then, is that his course toward freedom still has a lot of roadblocks. There’s still a lot of hardships that are going to have to be faced to find true freedom.
“One of the questions raised by this play is how can a Jewish family, who every year celebrates Passover that commemorates the freedom of their ancestors, own slaves themselves?” said Morrison. The play also explores the themes of “freedom and what it means to be free. And having the ability to choose one’s own path in life. It explores faith and what it means to be a person of faith. And what it means to be a family.”