The Whipping Man goes south 

Matthew Lopez's play shows its seams in a Northlight Theatre production.

As a northern Jew of a certain age, I grew up thinking of the American south as foreign soil—not merely strange but hostile. It was the home of the KKK, the place where they lynched Leo Frank—a Jewish factory manager wrongly convicted of murder—and sold pieces of the noose for keepsakes. (Sure, that was in 1915, but we don't forget.) My uncle Eddie had to change his last name in order to work a southern sales route. You took a plane to get to Miami Beach, the closest thing to an American Tel Aviv, so as to avoid the risks of driving through the surrounding swamps of yahooism. When Chicago rabbis went down there, it was to help Reverend King liberate the place from segregation.

The south, in short, was the land of the anti-Jew. It never occurred to me back then that my people might have a stake in it, much less share responsibility for such odious southern institutions as the one they call "peculiar."

But, of course, I was wrong. An increasing amount of scholarship—coupled with a decreasing amount of chauvinism—has long since made it clear even to me that there were loads of slaveholders among the approximately 50,000 Jews living in the south at the start of the Civil War. And, as a program note for Northlight Theatre's game but disappointing production of The Whipping Man so diplomatically puts it, the "behavior of Jews towards their slaves was indistinguishable from that of Christian slave owners." That is to say, we bought and sold black people, too. We whipped them for punishment and abused them for our pleasure. We treated them as chattel.

A 2006 drama by Matthew Lopez, The Whipping Man looks at the ugly ironies that obtain when Jews, who celebrate their own emancipation from slavery every spring, enslave others.

Caleb DeLeon is the scion of a prominent southern-Jewish family. A Confederate officer, he stumbles, gravely wounded, into his parents' ruined manse just a few days after General Lee's surrender at Appomattox. The only souls there to welcome him back are his former slaves, Simon and John—and John doesn't show up for a while because he's out looting the neighborhood.

Luckily for Caleb, gray-haired old Simon is as sober as John is wild. The classic unschooled nobleman of romantic southern lore, he's loyally stayed on even though he's free, to be there in case family members returned. And having spent much of the war assisting with amputations at the local military hospital, he's able to remove Caleb's gangrenous leg and save his life.

Simon also knows a thing or two about Judaism. In fact, the ostensibly benevolent DeLeons encouraged him to consider himself Jewish, even though they never taught him to read Hebrew. He wears a yarmulke and recites blessings, and when he figures out that it's early April, he resolves to put together a Passover seder.

The setup is heavily schematic, and gets more so as the play goes on and we're given various new tidbits to swallow, like the fact that the seder takes place on April 14, which is the date of Abraham Lincoln's assassination, or that Caleb has a passion for Simon's daughter Sarah. There are no real surprises in The Whipping Man, just morals waiting to be worked out.

And yet I know that it can be a compelling show, because it was compelling when I saw it done at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2011. That the play reveals its seams in the Northlight version is largely a function of Tim Edward Rhoze's performance as Simon.

Rhoze has taken on a problematic role in any case. Simon has to be staunch, wise, and perceptive throughout most of the action—a sort of DeLeon family griot, preserving histories and telling truths. But then the script demands that he be shaken by things that a man like the Simon we've been given would either know or have guessed at. In the MTC production, Andre Braugher finessed the contradiction with a grave, dignified wariness that bespoke faith tempered by an understanding of human nature. As directed here by Kimberly Senior, the character comes across, more plainly, as a true believer. Indeed, Rhoze performs one of his big speeches in rhythms that recall Southern Baptist testifying—awfully peculiar when you consider that Simon's spent his life worshipping in the Jewish manner. In the end, Simon looks like a fool, and that devalues the whole enterprise.

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