Former Confederate soldier Caleb DeLeón returns wounded from the battlefield to find his family home in ruins, abandoned by everyone except Simon and John, the family’s two former slaves. The play reveals their bonds entangled with lies are deeper than they imagine and all tied together with a faceless character, the Whipping Man.
The play is flawless. The dialogue and delivery transports the audience into a time in history where the nation struggled to reconcile its identity and after a long struggle liberated slaves recognizing them as free citizens.
The story line has incredible depth that keeps one on edge, wondering what is to come and gasping with the twists and turns as the secret plots are revealed.
Written by Matthew López, 33, the Whipping Man was presented at Cleveland Playhouse Square’s Allen Theatre which offered the unique stage setting to bring the three-man play to life. The characters spread through the setup, interacting closely with the audience, building the relationship and drawing them in as they increased the climatic tension between their characters.
The story is unique as it combines history and the Jewish tradition of Passover narrated through the perceptions of freed Jewish slaves. López, born to a Puerto Rican father and Polish Russian mother, did extensive research on the historical and religious references and narrates them through the perception of the characters.
The Passover Seder, led by Simon, is uniquely his. “It is what he has learned over the years as he is going in and out of the dinner room as a server,” López explained to the audience at Allen Theatre after the performance. “Spaces like the Allen make plays feel much more intimate and thereby personal,” he said, making it easier to relate to the characters and their pain.
He said naming the play after a character who never makes an appearance on stage expect in third reference was a deliberate metaphor for the scars this nation bared on its history of slavery. “None of the men will be able to forget him, shake him. We as a nation are still haunted by him too,” he said.
López is venturing forward with even more complex issues such as coal mining, an adaptation of Howards End, revised around three generations of gay men in New York City, and the powerful force of Christianity as a potential source for social justice in the world.
López was awarded the John Gassner Playwriting Award from the Outer Critics Circle. Prior to New York, the play was presented at Luna Stage, Penumbra Theatre Company, Barrington Stage Company and the Old Globe in San Diego, where he is currently Artist-in-Residence.
The play was presented through partnership with the Young Latino Network and Society of Urban Professionals. The two organizations also presented Salsa Soul, a fusion of soul music and salsa dancing.