1865. Richmond, Virginia. Several days after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at nearby Appomattox. A wounded Confederate captain limps up to the entrance of what was once a grand home. It used to be his family’s stately residence; now it’s in ruins. Caleb DeLeon is badly injured and distraught to find the place deserted. But he soon realizes that it’s still inhabited — by two of his family’s former slaves: middle-aged Simon, who raised him, and John, Caleb’s young peer, who was raised side by side with him. Like many slaves, they adopted their master’s religion. Both continue to embrace and practice Judaism, and they’re about to hold a Seder.
So begins the fascinating and provocative play, “The Whipping Man,” by New York-based actor-turned-writer Matthew Lopez, a garrulous and gregarious young writer who’s deeply passionate about his subject matter.
But before we get to the specifics of the playwright and the play, a little history is in order, since this isn’t widely known information — about the South or the Jews.
At the time of the Civil War, there were about 625,000 families in the South. The Jewish population was less than 25,000, mostly clustered in the larger cities. Two thousand Jewish men served in the Confederate Army, with ranks ranging from private to colonel. (There were 10,000 Jews in the Union Army). According to population studies conducted by Lee Soltow and focused on the early 19th century, nearly 40 percent of Jewish families in the U.S. were slaveholders. In Charleston, Richmond and Savannah, more than 80 percent of Jewish households contained one or more slaves.
In “The Jewish Confederates,” published in 2000, lawyer/historian Robert N. Rosen, a native of Charleston, suggests that Southern society and the Confederate army and navy may have been more tolerant of Jews than Northerners. According to Rosen, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis strongly and openly supported the Jewish community, while Grant and Sherman were demonstrably anti-Semitic.
These are little-known facts about Jewish history, and not always comfortable ones. Stories focused on the parallels between the slavery of Africans and Jews have also been left largely unexplored.
“As a writer,” Lopez says, “I’ve always been fascinated by moments in history when the history ‘ends’ — the quiet after the storm of those big, grand, calamity moments. I’m interested in the period of adjustment, of psychological shift, when the real work begins. The next morning, you wake up and the world is different. How do you take those first steps for Part Two of your life?
“Slavery always fascinated me,” the playwright continues. “It was America’s Original Sin, filled with hypocrisies and moral twisting to excuse the practice. I wanted to explore that in my work. Then, it was a happy accident, a Eureka! moment, when I discovered that Lee surrendered just a few days before Passover. I couldn’t believe that no one had thought to write about and dramatize that. I took all those elements and put them into this play.”
The 33-year-old Brooklyn resident grew up in the Florida Panhandle, what he calls “the real South.” His Puerto Rican father moved to the States in early childhood and later served in the U.S. Air Force. Lopez’s mother, a native of Queens, came from a Polish/Russian Orthodox background. Young Matthew was baptized as a Lutheran and raised Episcopalian. He’s currently at work on a play about a Lutheran minister who questions his faith in God. “It has made me question my own beliefs,” Lopez says.
During his adolescence, his parents, both schoolteachers, were amateur historians and Civil War re-enactors. The whole family became Civil War buffs. Lopez got the inspiration for “The Whipping Man” when he was an acting student in a playwriting class at the University of South Florida.
“From the beginning, I wanted to have a Seder in the play,” he says. “I got a Haggadah, and I found that the parallels between that story and the story of African Americans were unending. It could just as well have been written by former slaves, coming out of the South. My goal was to turn a common history into a shared history.”
Throughout his multi-year writing process, Lopez has had input from Jews, consulting with scholars, rabbis and Jewish theater-makers. He did both “historical research and spiritual research.”
“I had known a little about Passover. My uncle’s wife is Jewish. When I wrote the play, I hadn’t been to a Seder. But now, I’ve been to several.”
Most of the New York-based cast and the director attended a Seder last month at Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.
“It was such a beautiful ceremony,” Lopez says. “I realized that Seders are primarily geared to children, to remind the successive generations of what happened. There’s nothing like it in the Christian faith. It’s millennia old and it survives, remains relevant to any era. Several times, the phrase came up: ‘With freedom comes responsibility.’ It’s a moral imperative that is taught so clearly and profoundly in Judaism.”
Yet, Lopez continues, the lives of the Jewish slaveholders in his play is one large paradox.
“In the play, the Jewish family encouraged their slaves’ learning of Judaism. Still, they didn’t believe that owning slaves, and sending them to the local ‘whipping man’ to be punished for misdeeds, was wrong. In a slave-based economy, you can’t function without slaves.
“If even Jews owned slaves, how profoundly pernicious was this practice? My God! It shows that no one was immune from the evils of slavery that infected our nation. The play speaks to the warping evil of slavery. It made hypocrites of good men. Caleb DeLeon comes to learn that there’s no such thing as a good slave-owner. A family can be as kind as they want, but they’re engaged in a profoundly immoral act.
It’s the character of Caleb, the Jewish slaveholder who has the most transformative experience, that Lopez worked the hardest to get just right.
“Caleb is my favorite character,” Lopez confesses. “And he’s the one I’ve been tinkering with most for this production. He takes the most profound journey. I love watching him, and I think Jewish groups will love watching the play. After a reading in Boca Raton several years ago, the community — mostly Jewish — called the theater and demanded a full production.”
And a full production was what eventually developed.
“The women who first produced the play in 2006, at Luna Stage in Montclair, NJ, are Jewish,” Lopez says. “The reactions of the general community, to that production and to subsequent ones in St. Paul, Minn., and Boca Raton, Fla. (where its run was extended), were extremely positive. Reviews called the play “dramatic,” “wonderful,” “gripping,” “absorbing,” a creation where “national scars merge with personal histories.”
“Jewish theatergoers said that the play was done with great sensitivity and respect,” Lopez says. But during its development, he was stymied in trying to rely on history for all his background information.
“There’s very little research into the questions of slaves adopting or maintaining Judaism. That’s where I made my fictive leap. I figured, if the preponderance of African Americans are Christian because the preponderance of slaveowners were Christian, wouldn’t it stand to reason that some slaves, being owned by Jews, would have accepted Judaism and been encouraged to do so once their owners found they had an interest in it? I’ve tried desperately to find history or narratives supporting my contention, but I haven’t found anything. I can’t imagine that, in the whole history of slavery, this never happened. I’m comfortable saying that this is the line where history ends and fiction begins. But I think it’s a logical leap to make.
“In the play, the two former slaves are self-identified Jews. Simon, the older one, has a very simple, uncomplicated faith. Perhaps some of this has to do with the fact that he can’t read. John’s faith is much more complicated. He’s read the Torah and the history books. His faith is real, but he questions everything; that’s what being a Jew is.”
One of the issues that comes up for all three characters, black and white, is hypocrisy.
“I always wondered, what was it like sitting at a Seder, year after year, speaking these words about slavery and freedom, and right behind you is a slave serving dinner? How could they not make the connection between what they said and what they practiced? In the play, Caleb is just starting to realize, as the son of a wealthy, influential man, the kind of power he had over John when they were young. The power of ‘I own you. I can do anything I want.’ He comes to realize that he was not doing the right thing, not being a good Jew. The war changed him, made a man out of him. Because of the Seder, he’s moved to tell the truth, to reveal his secrets, as are the other two.
“I get that some of this might make people uncomfortable,” Lopez concedes. “That doesn’t mean we should ignore it. The role of the artist in society is to see the dirt on the floor and point it out, not sweep it under the rug. The play has touched a chord with every audience. I’ve seen Jewish women in tears at the end. I believe this play is a celebration of Judaism.”
“The Whipping Man” will be performed in the Old Globe’s new Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre May 8-June 13. (619) 23-GLOBE (234-5623); www.theoldglobe.org
“The Jewish Confederates,” by Robert N. Rosen (University of South Carolina Press, 2000)
“American Jewry and the Civil War,” Rabbi Bertram Korn (1951, re-issued in 2001 by the Jewish Publications Society)
“All Other Nights,” a novel by Dara Horn (W. W. Norton & Company, 2009)