It comes as a bit of a shock to learn there were Jewish slave owners in the pre-Civil War South, and that they raised their slaves in their faith.
That's the starting point for Matthew Lopez' "The Whipping Man" at Northlight Theater in Skokie. History confirms that small numbers of Jews of that time and place did hold slaves; Northlight is holding a series of discussions at suburban libraries to explore that phenomenon further.
"The Whipping Man" begins just as the North has won the war and the South lies in ruins. The once-promising son of a wealthy Richmond home, Caleb DeLeon, played by Darek Gaspar, literally drags himself in the door, wounded from serving four years as a Confederate officer. War has been tough on the stately mansion, too; Jack Magaw's evocative set conveys a formerly grand home with its windows blown out, furniture looted and walls crumbling.
While the home once bustled with Caleb's parents and their slaves, now only Simon, the wise elder of the slaves, and John, a slave of Caleb's (young adult) age, remain.
Two hours of dramatic and compelling theater seem barely enough to work out all the issues they must confront--the end of slavery; Caleb's father's treatment of Simon and John as slaves; Caleb's not-so-equal relationship to John, even though they played together as children; John's bitterness at suffering in slavery, and most of all, how the Jewish faith values they all were raised in relate--or not--to the idea of owning other human beings for profit.
The question of how the former slave-owner and slaves, accustomed to a dominant-subservient dynamic, will relate to each other as equals also looms large. So does the issue of what the former slaves will do now that freedom is theirs.
The play's dramatic high point takes place when Simon, who is both the moral authority and voice of reason, learns the day of Passover has arrived and becomes determined to celebrate it.
The Passover seder's symbolism, heralding the emancipation of Jews from slavery in Egypt, simply and powerfully mirrors this play's moment in history.
When we hear Sean Parris, playing John, answer "Why do we eat bitter herbs?" with "To remind us of the bitterness of slavery," when we hear the traditional Seder verse "This year we are slaves, next year may we be free," and when Tim Edward Rhoze, as Simon, is moved to sing a spiritual with the lyric, "Let My People Go," it creates a spine-tingling moment. And it evokes the tangled relationship between slave and slave-holder.
That isn't the end of the tangled relationships--there are secrets to be spilled and hidden agendas to be revealed. The characters have made choices, and many of those choices were informed by the poisonous nature of slavery, the suffering of war and/or lapses from the values they were raised in.
Director Kimberly Senior has managed to balance each of the three characters' energies, allowing Rhoze's inspiration and guiding hand to set straight Parris' rebelliousness, while Gaspar weighs in with his own character's guilt, regrets and pain.
It's fitting Northlight is mounting the production just as the movie Lincoln is nominated for a slew of Academy Awards; they both address the same month in history and call to mind how long and hard-fought was the quest to end slavery.
If you go
Schedule: The Whipping Man runs Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through Feb. 24.
Location: Northlight Theatre at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, Ill.
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.
Parking: Free parking in parking structure behind the theater.
Tickets: northlight.org or 847-673-6300.