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The Whipping Man
Dramaturgical Notes

The Possibility of Freedom

In The Whipping Man, playwright Matthew Lopez returns us to a liminal moment in American history.  The days and nights of April 1865 that his characters live through mark a threshold, a brief period that does not find an easy place within narratives of linear progress.  In this moment of possibility, the two hundred twenty-four-year-old institution of slavery in the United States no longer applied, and the Jim Crow laws that would peretuate fear and segregation into the twentieth century were not yet written.  While black soldiers were helping to force the surrender of General Lee and his confederate troops at the Appomattox Courthouse, southern states were scrambling to respond to the Thirteenth Amendment, and in the months to come many would enact Black Codes that would enforce slavery-like conditions by other means.  This was a time of chaos, reflected in the destruction of the De Leon home, the wounding of former power-holders, and the amassing of material goods by those who were without status in the revious regime.  In the world that Lopez has created, each thought is formed, each word is spoken, each breath is taken as if for the first time.

As Lopez invites us to experience the rich complexity of this moment along with Simon, Caleb, and John, he simultaneously illuminates some of the less will known realities during this tumultuous time: the bankrupting of an economic system based on black bodily labor, the fleeing of wealthy slave-owning families in the aftermath of the Civil War, the miscegenation between whites and their black slaves, and the interweaving of Jewish and African American lives and religious beliefs and customs.  This last reality is often overshadowed by its Christian corollary, but Jews, though a minority in American, did in fact have a long history in Richmond, and Jewish leaders were vocal on both sides of the slavery debate.  As was often the case in Christian slave-owning households, slaves of Jewish masters also took up the practices and beliefs of their owners, infusing them with their own perspectives and symbols, using ritual to ground daily living and provide hope for the futures - in this life or the next.

Scholar Saidiya V. Hartman says of this historical moment that "the encumbrances of emacipation and the fettered condition of the freed individual, at the very least, lead us to reconsider the meaning of freedom." 1  Indeed, as we witness the uneasy reunion of former slaves and former master during three stormy days in 1865, we must ask ourselves who among them is free and who is enslaved?  To whom and what do each of these characters offer their allegiance?  And in the face of their complex reality, how might we understand their humanity, citizenship, rights, liberties, responsibilities, and power?  These questions are the very stuff of great drama, the questions that underppin the vexing contradictions of our country's history.

Stephanie Lein Walseth,
August Wilson Fellow

 

1 Hartman, Saidiya V. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America.  Oxford: Oxford University ress, 1997 (10).


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