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How do we interact with the past? How do we come to terms with our family history and reconcile the good with the bad? How do we address the scars of slavery that are seared into our memory and still haunt us today? How do we move forward?
The Arkansas Repertory Theatre's new play, "The Whipping Man" by Matthew Lopez, aims to tackle these questions, taking us back to 1865 and the aftermath of the Civil War. It's Passover, and a Jewish Confederate soldier comes home badly wounded to find his Virginia home in ruins and the rest of his family missing. Two of his family's former slaves attend to his wounds and the three men are forced to reconcile their past and navigate their shifting relationships now that slavery has ended.
Though the play's dealing with serious issues, it avoids being overly preachy or somber. "Despite the historical context, it's not a historical play; it's about relationships," said Ryan Barry, who plays the soldier. At its core, it's a family drama with a wide range of emotions, where characters are having to make choices on how to move forward while peeling back the layers of their shared history.
"It's not a tragic play. It's well balanced with suspense, laughter and entertainment," said Michael Shepperd who plays Simon, one of the former slaves. "It brings in the Southern Gothic element of family secrets, lies and cover-ups. The audience is constantly wondering what's going to be discovered next."
The unique aspect of "The Whipping Man," what sets it apart from other period-piece Civil War dramas, is that it's told from the perspective of a Jewish family. There are plenty of implied connections between the family's observance of Passover — which commemorates the freedom from slavery and the exodus of Jews in Egypt — and the newly obtained freedom of the slaves in the wake of the Civil War's end.
"This story allows us to think outside the box a bit. It's not quite as simple as the black/white dynamics that we're used to in this setting," said Damian Thompson, who plays John, another former slave. "It's not a play that gives answers, it asks us to think about what's around us."
Shepperd elaborates: "In the play, we observe Passover with a Seder dinner. One of the purposes of a Seder is that people will ask questions about what we're doing and why, what's the reason for remembering this history."
The Rep's production team has also put in a lot of work to find authentic props and materials to recreate the feel of the setting of the play. The material for the soldier's costume comes from the original mill that produced actual uniforms during the civil war. "That authenticity does a lot to help the actors. It really puts us in the place of the play," Barry said.
One of the most widely produced plays in the last few years, "The Whipping Man" asks us to look at our past in the context of the present and how race relations have changed (and not changed) since the Civil War, Shepperd said.
"The play's set in 1865, so 100 years later, with the Voting Rights Act in 1965, black people are finally given the right to vote. Now, 50 years after that, we're here in 2015, and we've still got issues with redistricting, voter ID laws, and the like. The play addresses the fact that though things have changed, we see many of the same issues then and now."
In the tradition of Passover and the Seder meal, "The Whipping Man" calls for its audience to ask serious questions about our history and about the reasons why we come together to remember it. As we follow the characters through their journey of discovering their past, we're left with more questions than answers. But perhaps those questions will provide the space for us to have the conversations we need to move forward and heal from the wounds of the past. "There's no tied-up-in-a-bow ending," Shepperd said. "The audience has to ask themselves, 'What happens next, where do we go from here?' "
"The Whipping Man" opens Friday, Jan. 23, and runs through Sunday, Feb. 8. Special events include a discussion with Dr. Carl Moneyhon of the UALR History Department on Monday, Jan. 26, at 5:30 p.m., talk-back discussions after the shows on Thursday, Jan. 29, and Thursday, Feb. 5, and a panel discussion at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 3.