REVIEWSREVIEWS BYTheatre ReviewsTom Williams

The Whipping Man


By Matthew LopezWhipping-Man-title-WEB-horiz

Directed by Kimberly Senior

At Northlight Theatre, Skokie

Surprising look at the Jewish slave owners in the Civil  War Era South

Playwright Matthew Lopez’s drama , The Whipping Man is a contradictory work in that it deals with a Richmond, Virginia Jewish family that both held slaves and allowed them to learn to read yet still whipped them when necessary.

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The time is April 14, 1865, the Civil War has just ended and Caleb (Derek Gaspar) is staggering into his bombed out house in Richmond (terrific set design by Jack Magaw). The place is in ruins and everyone has abandoned it but for two former slaves. Simon (Tim Edward Rhoze) is the older, very loyal ex-slave who stays in the house as he waits for his wife and daughter to return from their exile from war-the war-torn city.

The wounded Caleb is doctored by Simon who ends up amputating Caleb’s leg from gangrene from a bullet wound. John, a younger ex-slave (Sean Parris) and former pal to Caleb aids Simon in the surgery.   We see that both Simon and John are Jewish taking after their former master’s religion. The three are united by their mutual faithhave that special bond that some slaves had with their somewhat benevolent owners. Therein lies my problem with Lopez’s play.

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John is a most articulate and well-read ex-slave who sounds as glib as Frederick Douglas and devoid of a trace of Southern black dialect. It sure stretches credulity. It seems that the master didn’t have a problem with John learning to read yet when he found John with a stack of books, he forced him to take them to the library and sent him to the whipping man to teach him a lesson. It seems that the enlightened master also, thorough the years, sent Simon to the whipping man to kept him obedient.

As the play move onward, secrets are revealed: John is terrified as a consequence of his violent act against a white man; Caleb hides the fact that he deserted from the Confederate Army from the trenches outside Petersburg. John also hides from Simon that his wife and daughter will not be returning to the house.  All this is revealed during a Passover Seder that the three participate in.

The main surprises here is the fact that urban Jewish had slaves and that they took up the master’s religion. Who knew?  The sins of the past boil over as  their shared past that they can’t escape comes back to haunt them. I thought Sean Parris was too glib for the role. Derek Gaspar was terrific and Tim Edward Phoze commanded the stage- he was outstanding. The work’s theme and premise was stronger than the predictable storyline. Still, The Whipping Man presents a little know bit of history that I’m sure many Jews will be surprised and appalled at.


Tom Williams

Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast

Date Reviewed: January 25. 2013

Jeff Recommended

For more info checkout The Whipping Man page at

At Northlight Theatre, 9501 N. Skokie Blvd, Skokie, IL, call 847-673-6300,, tickets $25 – $72, Tuesday thru Thursdays at 7:30 pm,  Wednesday matinees at 1 pm, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2:30 & 8 pm, Sundays at 2:30 & 7 pm, running time is 2 hours with intermission, through February 24, 2013

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