Actor Thomas Olajide says new play explores forms of slavery.
THE WHIPPING MAN by Matthew Lopez, directed by Philip Akin, with Sterling Jarvis, Brett Donahue and Thomas Olajide. Presented by Harold Green Jewish Theatre and Obsidian Theatre at Studio Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts (5040 Yonge). Previews begin Saturday (March 16), opens March 21 and runs to April 14, see hgjewishtheatre.com for details. $42.50-$62.50. 1-855-985-2787.
The three characters in Matthew Lopez's The Whipping Man, set in 1865 Virginia, have all been raised as Jews. What's striking is that two of them are recently freed black slaves, and the third is their former master.
The American Civil War has just ended, and Caleb DeLeon returns to his family's ruined mansion; there, the lives of Simon and John have suddenly changed.
"There are many forms of slavery," says Thomas Olajide, who plays the young John, "and the playwright explores the concept from several different angles. I'm struck by the fact that the play is set after the abolition of slavery in the United States rather than during it.
"The two black characters are shown right at the moment of freedom, which they soon discover is a burden as well as a blessing. John and Simon have never been given the tools to make an independent choice, and suddenly have the freedom to choose. I think that realization can be far more terrifying than actually being a slave."
Both Caleb and John harbour secrets, and Simon, who is like a father to John, has some of his innocence stripped away in the course of their revelation.
"At the start of the play, John thinks he has it made. He steals everything he can and tries to refurnish the DeLeons' house to represent his new self-image as a free man. By the end, he realizes just how unfree he is."
Caleb comes home just after Confederate general Robert E. Lee has surrendered to the head of the Union forces, Ulysses S. Grant, at Appomattox. When Lopez - an American writer of Puerto Rican descent, and Episcopalian - discovered that the Jewish holiday of Passover began shortly after the surrender, he had the hook for his script.
The spring holiday, which celebrates the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt, is one of the most important in the Jewish calendar.
"The irony, of course, is that the Jews, once slaves in Egypt, have become the masters of other people," says Olajide. "The DeLeons have raised the blacks they own as Jews, given Simon a copy of the Haggadah" - the book that sets the order of the Passover Seder, both a dinner and a ritual - "and taught them all sorts of Jewish laws and history.
"But they're still treated as slaves."
The actor, a National Theatre grad who's appeared in Sia, Binti's Journey and The Winter's Tale, has been learning about Jewish tradition as part of the rehearsal process, since a Seder is the play's climactic scene.
"Each food on the Seder ceremonial plate represents something in the life of the celebrants. There's the charoset, for instance, a dark fruit-and-nut mixture that stands for the mortar the slaves used when building for their masters. It shows, I think, how sweetness can come from bitterness. The ceremony is filled with resonant symbols like that."
The play uses Passover and the newfound freedom of the black characters to examine questions of race, religion and accountability.
"One of the beauties of Passover is that its observance involves a series of questions and answers that lead to discussions about freedom, slavery and what it means to be a Jew. I wish we had other opportunities like that in today's society, a chance to contemplate who we are and what we have today because of what happened in the past.
"It's an important part, I believe, of how we each can define our own identity."