November 18, 2018

Jewish slave owners and a seder for the ages

The son of a Jewish, slave-owning family from the South confronts two of his former slaves just as the Civil War ends in the play “The Whipping Man,” which played at the West Coast Jewish Theatre in Los Angeles, has been produced by theater companies around the country and is now being presented by the Pasadena Playhouse.  

Playwright Matthew Lopez said he has always been fascinated by the human drama of the Civil War and wanted to write a play about it, but couldn’t come up with an original approach. He remembered how one day, when he was visiting with his dad, he told his father that he didn’t want to regurgitate what had already been done about that time in history.

“He brought me into his office,” Lopez said, “and plucked down a book off of his shelf, one of his many, many, many dozens of books on the Civil War.  It was called ‘The Jewish Confederates,’ and he said, ‘This is a fascinating subject. No one really thinks about Jews in the South, particularly during the Civil War. And no one’s ever really written about it, except in this book.  And no one’s certainly ever dramatized it. Maybe there’s a story in that.’ ”

The story Lopez eventually created begins in the city of Richmond, Va., in April of 1865. Robert E. Lee has just surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, and the slaves are free but the South is in ruins. Caleb (Adam Haas Hunter), a Jewish Confederate soldier, returns to his family’s decaying estate. He is badly wounded with a bullet still lodged in his leg, which threatens to become gangrenous. Everyone has fled and the house is empty, except for Simon (Charlie Robinson), an older man who was one of the Jewish family’s slaves.  They are soon joined by John (Jarrod M. Smith), another former family slave who is closer in age to Caleb, seemingly more opportunistic than Simon, and who has been looting deserted properties to obtain food and supplies.

Diagnosing the gravity of Caleb’s wound, Simon performs an amputation with John’s help, and remains to care for his former owner as the three men struggle to survive under extremely harsh conditions. 

The core of the play is leavened by a little-known piece of history that Lopez uncovered while reading his father’s book.

“I stumbled across what was barely a footnote in the book,” he said, “which was basically the very buried little fact that Passover in 1865, which was the last year of the war, began the day after Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Lee surrendered on April 9, and (on) April 10, Passover began.” 

As the play indicates, it was commonplace for slaves to take on the religion of their owners, so Simon and John have been schooled in Judaism. And, in the second act, Simon, who instinctively understands the meaning underlying the ritual, organizes a makeshift seder.

Lopez recalled one of his favorite moments from an early production when the seder began onstage. “Some man leans over to his wife and says, ‘They’re not going to do the whole thing, are they?’ which I thought was wonderful. ‘We’re going to be here for hours. I hope they feed us when it’s over.’ ” 

The playwright explained that he wanted to express the similarity between the freeing of the slaves and the meaning of Passover, which celebrates the freedom of the Jews from bondage in Egypt. “I just saw this beautiful, sort of historical parallel, the ability to tell the Exodus story again, the ability to put into counterpoint millennia-old stories that, for these characters, are very vitally immediate.”  

He added, “There was a very, very specifically, commonly shared experience of slavery, of bondage, and of freedom that came at great cost. It was not given, it was taken, which, of course, is the only way freedom can really be obtained.  The Hebrew slaves had God on their side — the American slaves had Ulysses S. Grant, the Union Army and Abraham Lincoln.”

Lopez is of Puerto Rican and European heritage and is not Jewish, but some of his relatives have married Jews, and he is familiar with the culture. He views the seder as a powerful metaphorical exercise. “Speaking as a dramatist looking at religious liturgy, it’s great theater,” Lopez said. “It’s a powerful use of words. The fact that it’s survived as a practice for all of these millennia proves that it works, and it’s just a wonderfully effective tool of remembrance.”  

He continued, “What I’ve always found just beautiful about the words in the haggadah and the practice of a seder is that it causes people to think about their own lives and to reflect on freedom, because, essentially, what it comes down to really is freedom of the soul.”  

As the action flows toward its conclusion, secret upon secret is revealed, and emotions are laid bare. Simon has to deal with the fiction that his family treated their slaves well and to face the apparent immorality of the legacy of slavery.  

Lopez maintained that there is no neat and tidy ending to his play because the fallout from slavery is a story we are still living. “If I’m ever asked, ‘Why [is] a Puerto Rican gay man telling this story about Jewish slaves and Jewish slave owners and African-Americans?’ my answer is always that we’ve got to tell each other’s story. We have to collectively own it. We can’t just simply claim our little section of history. We must tell the American story, and the American story is a very broad and very multifaceted story. We have to tell the whole story, not just our own.”

“The Whipping Man” will be performed at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena, Feb. 3 – March 1

Tickets: 626-356-7529 or