"The Whipping Man:" An Examination of Scars.

Syracuse Stage's production of Matthew Lopez's dramatic spin on America's "original sin."

On the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act’s passage and the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, Syracuse Stage presents The Whipping Man. Playwright Matthew Lopez’s debut work reminds Americans of the unhealed scars on the slaves and their masters. Directed by Timothy Bond, this production taps into the reflection of history and poses question on how far America has advanced. 

Photo: Michael Davis
Jonathan Peck (Simon) and Biko Eisen-Martin (John) in the Syracuse Stage production of "The Whipping Man."

At the end of the war, wounded confederate soldier Caleb DeLeon (Gregory Perri) arrives home. There are only two former slaves left: Simon (Jonathan Peck) and John (Biko Eisen-Martin). The two take care of Caleb, confront their twisted past and unsettled present. Raised in this Jewish family, Simon faithfully organizes the Passover Seder, which commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The correlation of the religious feast and the war, conceived deliberately by Lopez, is a powerful symbol. And it is intensified with revelations throughout the story. 

The story sets in 1865. However, the consciously contemporary language suggests that since Simon rushed out of the grand plantation house to look for his families, the scars on his back have remained.The wounds of the Civil War and slavery pass down from generation to generation. The social and economic inequality of minorities continues. For much of the show, Peck’s performance engages by using his body and his voice with mesmerizing rhythm. Peck embodies a sternly, cheerful, kindhearted Simon.

In such extreme circumstances, he laughs out loud now and then. Though knowing that Caleb “owns” her daughter, he still saves Caleb’s life only because it is the right thing to do. With the “family tree” (yes, Simon refer to the scars on his back as a family tree) of the DeLeons– the whipping scars he got from Caleb’s father and grandfather–on his back, Simon still appreciates the good things in the family. 

Besides the well-conceived script, the witty dialogue plays an indispensible role in the success of the narrative since its world premiere in Montclair, New Jersey in 2006. Within those smart conversations, the restlessness John poses the most important questions. Eisen-Martin delivers a young man full of outrage against the injustice. He learned to defy the rules, if he had not, he couldn’t balance his fierce indignation. He questions his forbidden desire of reading as a slave. He questions the unforgotten whipping from Caleb who he once considered friend. He questions the ownership rather than the friendship between himself and Caleb.

Caleb DeLeon, the former master, now a Confederate soldier who has deserted, hops into the destroyed house (designed by William Bloodgood) as a horse whinnies and artillery growls among the violent thunderstorm and soldier's death screams (designed by Michael Keck). In Lopez’s script, Caleb is supposedly equivalent to the other two, if not outweighs them. Despite Caleb’s injured state, Perri’s performance weakens Caleb’s presence on stage. The story centers on the entangled relationship of the two sides. In this sense, the play seems a little lopsided. During the Seder ceremony, Caleb can’t help to tell Simon that his families have been sold. That’s when all the hidden stories expose at once, and we eventually know the entwined history within that house, see the startling scars on Simon’s back, and understand the cruelty of slavery. 

Tough the Whipping man never appears on stage, the scars left by slavery remains. The play reiterates the cruelties of slavery that caused the Civil War. But it also works as a “Seder” for Americans to retell the history of freedom. 

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