Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Story Is Revealed by Layers

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Story Is Revealed by Layers

Article excerpt

Playwright Matthew Lopez breaks down a lot of stereotypes and expectations about slaves, their owners and freedom in his drama "The Whipping Man."

The play, which has its area premiere this week at the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, is set in the ruins of a Richmond, Va., home in the waning weeks of the Civil War on the day that President Abraham Lincoln was shot. Before that news has spread, a wounded young Confederate soldier limps his way back home and finds that two of his former slaves are the only people around.

Things don't go as audiences may anticipate, said director Howard Millman said.

"I like the fact that the play peels back like an onion, piece by piece," he said. "Nothing is revealed until it's revealed. The audience is constantly thinking what surprise am I going to get next."

One of those surprises, though revealed early on, is that this home was run by a Jewish family and the slaves took to the faith, too, which Millman and his three-man cast said adds another level of fascination. The play is set during the Jewish festival of Passover, which marked the fleeing of Jewish slaves from Egypt.

"I like what the play says about freedom and the parallels with the Biblical story of Moses freeing slaves who were Jews and Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves who were black," Millman said. "That becomes very potent in the play."

Millman, the longtime producing artistic director of Asolo Repertory Theatre, is directing for the first time at Westcoast, where he served several years as president of the board of directors.

He is working with a cast that includes former "Hill Street Blues" star Taurean Blacque as the oldest slave Simon, Robert Douglas as John, and Drew Foster as the soldier Caleb.

It's a homecoming of a different kind for Foster, who grew up in Sarasota, where he performed at Asolo Rep and many other area theaters before graduating from Juilliard and performing in a long- running national tour of "West Side Story."

It's his first performance in Sarasota since "Rabbit Hole" at Florida Studio Theatre in 2007.

Douglas said the play "challenges the conventional thought of the slave/African-American experience. When you think of the slave African-American in this country, you automatically assume that they were owned by a Christian slave owner. The fact that they were owned by a Jewish slave owner and actually matriculate in a home where Judaism becomes their faith is very exciting. I think it provides an 'a-ha' moment."

That also means that all three actors are immersing themselves in the religious traditions of Passover and spending time learning Hebrew (or as much as they need) to make it authentic.

Millman jokes that he's going to be a stickler for pronunciations and intonation when they recite prayers.

Blacque, who has an extensive resume of stage performances in addition to his film and television work, admires how the play deals with a period of drastic change for all the characters as new truths are revealed. …

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