A Civil War Passover, A Night to Remember, and a Window on Jewish History

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

The Whipping Man
City Center Stage 1
130 W. 56th St.
New York, N.Y.

Jewish Confederates came home to abandoned homes, empty cupboards and ruined lives after the Civil War ended just as Christian Confederates did. The Whipping Man is Matthew Lopez’s new play about the homecoming of a Jewish soldier from Richmond, VA, and his Jewish slaves, and their ad hoc Passover Seder together.  The Seder is the centerpiece of the play, and a springboard to a sordid family secret that jars the audience.

The Whipping Man, produced by the Manhattan Theater Club, is a fine, sturdy, historic drama about the three men, one now the ex-master of the other two, and how their lives split apart and merged again in the aftermath of the war and on the day Lincoln was assassinated.  It puts a new spotlight on homecomings and on Jewish life in America.

Caleb DeLeon, the soldier, a veteran of the siege of  Petersburg, Virginia, and other battles, is war weary when he limps through the front door of his mansion on Passover, in April 1865, his leg bleeding. He expects to find his family, and lover, but they have fled.  Instead, he encounters his elderly slave Simon and young slave Dick, now freedmen.

The DeLeons were a Jewish family and brought up their slaves as Jews, something that is surprising to most today but not that uncommon for Jewish slaveowner families in the South in the nineteenth century.  Caleb and the slaves decide to celebrate Passover, even if they have to use army hardtack and a stale, rock hard loaf of bread to do it.

The magnificent set, by John Lee Beatty, is the first floor of the large old DeLeon home, a dreary looking place with holes in the roof and a broken staircase banister, pelted by an endless rainfall that symbolizes the washing away the sins of the war and slavery.  It is there that Simon has to amputate Caleb’s leg, a grisly scene, in order to save him.  And it is there, on small tables pushed together, that the three celebrate Passover, complete with Simon’s mournful singing of “Go Down, Moses.”  It is a significant Passover, too, because it notes the freeing of the American slaves as well as the Jewish slaves in the Bible.

And it is there that family secrets dribble out and accusations are made.  Caleb, it turns out, once took the lash from “the whipping man,” an overseer, and whipped John with it.  John never forgot.  John accuses Caleb of deserting from the army, a charge that the soldier does not deflect very well.

The Whipping Man is a good, solid play and, as a history play, tells much about the end of the Civil War, such as the southerners’ decision to set fire to Richmond, the Confederate capital, to prevent the Union army from seizing supplies.  The flight of President Jefferson Davis is noted, as are several battles and the food shortages in the South.  And, of course, it opens a window on Jewish and African-American history, always needed.

The central problem with the play, though, is that there is little tension.  The reunion of the three should be more raw, compelling, with sparks flying, and contain more personal reaction than it does.  These are three Jews celebrating Passover in terrible conditions, celebrating the ruination of one of them and the joyous exodus of the other two.  The play does heat up in act two and races towards a riveting, hold-your-breath finale that leaves the audience emotionally drained, but you have to sit through a slow first act that seems longer than the war to get there.

The acting is good.  Andre Braugher, a two-time Emmy Award nominee, is a zestul Simon, who severs Caleb’s leg, runs the Seder with gusto and is the ever hopeful anchor of the trio.  Andre Holland is the frantic young slave John, horrified by his past and worried about his future.  Jay Wilkison is the Jewish Caleb, who gives a stirring soldier’s lament at the beginning of act two.

It was surprising, though, that since Lopez chose a little known chapter in the Civil War that he wrote so little about the Jews and the war.  We learned of the family roots and the Seder, but nothing about the Jewish community in the South, Jews in the Confederate army or how Jews were treated by both sides in the conflict.

Richmond, where the DeLeons live, was one of the leading Jewish communities in the South, along with New Orleans.  One of the South’s first synagogues was built there in 1789, and the only monument to Jewish Confederates is there in Hollywood Cemetery.

There were between 6,000 and 10,000 Jewish soldiers in the Confederate army, and the South’s Secretary of War, Judah Benjamin, was Jewish.  Dr. Simon Baruch, another Jew, was the surgeon general of the Confederacy.  Numerous Jews were officers.  Some military companies were all Jewish.  The six Cohen brothers fought together in the North Carolina 10th Infantry. Several of the fabled cadets from the Virginia Military Institute who fought in the war were Jewish.  The Jews were involved in many major battles, such as Gettysburg, where Major Adolph Proskauer was a hero.  The final Confederate action of the war, a raid in Georgia, was led by Jewish Major Rafael Moses.

The Jews in the South were continually oppressed by the Union army.  The most egregious case was the effort of General Ulysses S. Grant to expel all the Jews living in the states of Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi.  He actually did boot out thirty Jewish families in Paducah, Kentucky before President Lincoln, startled by his actions, stopped him.

The actions of Jews in the Civil War were chronicled in several books, including The Jewish Confederate, by Robert Rosen, and American Jewry and the Civil War, by Bertram Korn.

It is nice to see that the play did not debut at a large Broadway theater but at the tiny Luna Theater, in Montclair, New Jersey.  It was then staged at several regional theaters around the U.S., including the Guthrie in Minneapolis.  It was also good to see that the Manhattan Theater Club hired a Jewish historian to authenticate Lopez’ script.

The Whipping Man is a fine historical drama, but needs some more antebellum anger and angst.

PRODUCTION: The Manhattan Theater Club. Set: John Lee Beatty, Costumes Catherine Zuber, Lights: Ben Stanton, Sound: Jill BC DuBoff. Directed by Doug Hughes.

CAST: Simon (Andre Braugher, John (Andre Holland), Caleb (Jay Wilkison).

Bruce Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu

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bill farrell - 2/7/2011

My wife and I saw the play on Feb.5. While I thought that the acting was terrific, the play did not impress me. Simply put, I did not find the seder (or the events within and aroung the seder) believable.

Certainly, unlikely events do happen, but I want evidence that something like these events happened before I suspend my disbelief. (I would love to know what my former teacher, Eric Foner thinks about the play, assuming that he sees it.)