By Ea Nicole Madrigal
Do you have to know about the American Civil War and its immediate aftermath to enjoy The Pasadena Playhouse’s current play, “The Whipping Man?” No. Do you need to have an appreciation for history? Perhaps. However, one thing is certain: You will be amazed by the complexity and multiple messages of this story even if you do not consider yourself a fan of theater. And, if you enjoy history and understand this particular period, you will assuredly love this play.
Rarely is a cast of just three actors assembled so perfectly that the story unfolds like a reality in front of the audience’s eyes. Whether it is the nuances of the story itself or the way the actors portray those nuances, “The Whipping Man” is a timely reminder about the atrocities of the Civil War and the casualties (both physically and emotionally) of the years that followed.
The story of “The Whipping Man” takes place immediately after the war has ended. An injured soldier, Caleb (played by Adam Haas Hunter) stumbles into a beleaguered and abandoned home ravaged by the war. But, the home is not empty. Instead, Simon (Charlie Robinson), Caleb’s family’s former slave, is also in the house. Meanwhile, John (Jarrod M. Smith), also a slave of Caleb’s family prior to the war, runs in from taking part in yet another looting of an abandoned Southern home.
All three characters represent different perspectives throughout the play. Simon, a slave all of his life until Emancipation, is hopeful for the future now that the war has ended. Caleb, the son of a slave owner, is a war time deserter and now cannot seek any assistance from his counterparts in Richmond, Virginia. And John, a self-educated slave, now holds resentment and hostility toward the institution and people who enslaved him all of his young life. In all of these complex storylines there is an even more interesting premise: both Simon and John practice the Jewish faith. Thus, the story intertwines the intricacies and challenges of this era with traditions and values founded both in faith and family.
The story also allows the audience to question, as the characters do during the course of the play, the multiple meanings of freedom. Robinson’s character sees freedom as choosing forgiveness and embracing hope for the future; while Smith’s character sees freedom as opportunism. In the role of a white slave owner, Hunter’s character has all the advantages which white men of property enjoyed during this era in American history, but now he faces the prospect of being shunned from Southern society due to his desertion and also due to the fact that he impregnated a black slave woman.
Indeed, it is this fascinating story that exemplifies human drama that abounds in “The Whipping Man” (although comedy is expertly integrated in certain scenes as well). However, it is the actors who bring the play to life. They are the ones who make it worth your while to go see how all of these characters’ perspectives and storylines play out by the end.
Particularly actor Jarrod M. Smith, a relative newcomer to the Los Angeles theater scene, provides a hallmark portrayal of John, the younger and restless former slave. Smith, who received his Bachelor’s degree in History, crafts a complex character in his portrayal of John who is scarred both physically and emotionally from the harsh realities of being a slave. Not to go unmentioned, both Robinson and Hunter provide such effortless portrayals of their individual characters that the audience can be transported back in time into a difficult as well as convoluted sequence of events taking place in just two days in April 1865.
The play ends in calamity, distress, and frustration, but in the true fashion of its complexity, it also concludes with a reminder about the multiple meanings of friendship, family, and humanity. If you do not consider yourself a theatergoer, this may be the time to break that tradition, because the perspectives offered up in this historical period piece (as well as the actors’ portrayals) provide an eloquent illustration of a complicated era in American history.