The Madison Theater Guild’s new production of Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man opened at the Bartell Theater over the weekend, and runs through March 18.
The play, directed by Dana Pellebon, tells the stories of three men, two slaves and their owner, following the end of the Civil War.
The characters consist of Simon, an older slave played by Tosumba Welch; John, a young rebellious slave played by Jalen Thomas; and Caleb, a Jewish slave owner and injured confederate soldier returning home from war played by Whitney Derendinger.
The plot follows a tale of family secrets, self-identity and exploration, and the human realities of American slavery, with one of the most striking plot elements being the role of religion.
“It was a tradition that the slaves take on the religion of the master, so [the play] not only comes at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War, but it also comes during Passover, which is when the Jewish people celebrate their liberation from Slavery in Egypt,” said Derendinger. “We find that these slaves have been celebrating Passover while they’ve been slaves and this year they’ve been emancipated so we’re dealing with the reconciliation of that shifting status.”
Derendinger also pointed out how this dynamic bares a resemblance to Madison’s own misperceptions about the city’s liberal identity.
“There’s this duality that happens in a lot of progressive cities where people say ‘no we’re progressive, we’re liberal,’ then you look at the achievement gap and disparities in income opportunities. This play represents that disparity,” said Derendinger.
For Pellebon, her primary focus for the play was ensuring the authenticity of the characters and the historical relevance of the time.
“What’s most important to me is authenticity of story and emotion, so when I read through a script I look for connections that I think are real,” said Pellebon. “For historical accuracy it’s not just are the clothes historically accurate or the furnishings historically accurate, but are the portrayals and attitudes accurate.”
The actors also dove into understanding the time period they’re representing in order to accurately capture the emotions of their characters, like Thomas, whose character possesses a great deal of anger.
“I remember [Dana] gave me a book to read called Slaves’ Narratives and it said that slaves just wanted to be known, they wanted be considered people and for me that really hit home as I started to shape my character and who he was,” said Thomas.
For Pellebon personally reading the script and directing the play, particularly during the election of Donald Trump, filled her with both anger and hope.
“I spent a lot of time reading angrily, slavery is an angering thing,” said Pellebon. “Doing this show during the time Donald Trump was elected actually allowed for me to have more hope because as bad as Donald Trump is, my ancestors have lived through worst times and persevered.”
The play will be running from March 3 to March 18th on the Evjue Stage. Tickets are $20.
“Plays like this only continue when the community supports it,” said Pellebon. “It’s important that everyone come out and see the show and in particular it’s important that the African American community support the arts because we want to see representation of ourselves on stage and in the audience.”