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A Slave to Freedom

October 26, 2011 By:
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Playwright Matthew Lopez

 Four questions? More like a score.

That's what playwright Matthew Lopez has raised in The Whipping Man, his Civil War drama of uncivil behavior between peoples, now being given its Philadelphia premiere by the Arden Theatre Co. in Old City.
 
Of all those raised, possibly the key question is: Why is this play different from all others?
 
Because this one brings to the seder table two slaves who have adopted their master's Jewish faith, even as the owner's son has lost his.
 
In putting out the chair for Elijah, Lopez has also pulled out the chair from under audience's expectations as The Whipping Man gives a whuppin' to prosaically produced plays.
 
As rallying cry, the South will rise again begs debate; but what made a New York Hispanic non-Jewish writer rise to the occasion of such a complex, if arcane, topic as Jews, slaves and internecine infernos?
 
In a way, argues Lopez, he's just a slave to history. "I'm an American history geek," says the 33-year-old with a thirst for Civil War arcana -- and a big fan of the movie Glory -- whose research revealed that some slaves owned by Jews took the religion as their own.
 
But then, Lopez says: "The maxim goes, 'Write what you know.' "
 
But who knew the rites and rituals of Judaism could be played out in such compelling fashion, with the end of the Civil War, the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the start of Passover rolled into an historical/theatrical troika that actually occurred in April 1865?
 
A number of regional theaters did, staging the work -- which actually started out as a 20-minute playlet -- before the Manhattan Theater Club took the drama -- as well as the young University of South Florida graduate and erstwhile actor -- under its wing, pushing him from the stage wings into the spotlight earlier this year.
 
At center stage is Lopez's luminous conceit and question: "How does it affect an individual to suddenly be free?" he asks in reference to the two slaves, free men ministering to the gangrenous leg of their owner's son in the brave new and apocalyptic world of post-Appomattox.
 
This mix of the blues and grays colors the play in a spectrum of splashy debates, cleverly conceived; indeed, this unchained melody of free verse has a Hebraic lilt to it.
 
"Pockets of our history," the playwright says of the epiphany that is the existence of black Jewish slaves, "yield some fascinating results."
 
And, yes, says Lopez with a laugh, he does understand that the tableaux of the two slave characters (portrayed at the Arden by Johnnie Hobbs Jr. and James Ijames) sitting down for their seder and hewing to the Haggadah "does seem unbelievable," even as the ritual's parallels in African-Americans' own exodus are sketched out clearly.
 
But Lopez did get the hechsher of historian Jonathan Sarna, chief curator for the National Museum of American Jewish History, on Independence Mall here, as well as being the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University.
 
The professor's imprimatur impressed the playwright of his own slavish devotion: "I felt, 'Oh, my God! I did my homework correctly.' "
 
Gold star, says Sarna, who was asked by the Manhattan Theater Club for historical advice about the script's accuracy. As for Torah-spouting slaves adhering to kashrut -- as the freed characters do in The Whipping Man -- it's all, indeed, kosher.
 
Only in America? "More so in the Caribbean," notes Sarna. Not that such Jewish adherents were common in the States, "but it's plausible. I can think of cases where it occurred, usually as products of liaisons" between Jewish masters and female slaves.
 
As for the nettlesome injection into the play of the moral minefield manifested by Jews owning slaves -- a case of hide the afikomen and the historical embarrassment?
 
Replies Sarna: "It's a very real issue: Any Jew in the South who could afford one, had one."
 
But theatergoers can't let go of this saga of freed slaves, feeling, says Lopez with a hint of irony, "a sense of ownership."
 

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