Roses and raspberries, Oct. 30

October 29, 2013 

Roses to the cast, crew and playwright Matthew Lopez for their production of “The Whipping Man,” which ended its local run with another standing ovation for its outstanding trio of actors Sunday afternoon at the ArtsCenter.

The play tells the story of a wounded Confederate soldier who returns to what remains of his family’s home in Richmond, Va., – and the family secrets unleashed as he and two former slaves reunite on the eve of the Jewish festival of Passover.

That’s right, Passover.

As a related documentary showing and discussion at the ArtsCenter revealed Saturday, an estimated 10,000 Jews fought in the Civil War, about two-thirds of them for the North; the rest for the South. Not all Jews who fought for the Confederacy were slave owners or supported slavery, “Jewish Soldiers in Blue & Gray” explained. Like many, they fought for state’s rights and against what they saw as an act of aggression by the North.

“The Whipping Man,” directed by Mark Filiaci, is named after an unseen character the patriarch took his slaves to for punishment. The play is not so much political, however, as personal. By telling the story through these characters, playwright Lopez drives home both the brutality and complexity of the system that upheld the Southern economy and, at the same time, upended it, tearing families apart.

Special congratulations to Phillip Bernard Smith as Simon, the older former slave, whose role demanded the full force of this talented actor. His anguish upon learning the fate of his missing wife and daughter was raw, his rage frightening. Victor Rivera as returning soldier Caleb and Alphonse Nicholson as freed younger slave John also gave compelling performances.

The ArtsCenter has scheduled several events in the coming months to commemorate the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Here are the remaining plays in the series

•  “A Civil War Christmas” by Paula Vogel, Dec. 13-15 and 18-22, directed by Bing Cox.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel weaves a rich tapestry of a beleaguered and divided nation, war-weary and desperate for goodwill, on a blustery Christmas Eve in 1864. Through the personal stories and struggles of a wide range of historical figures and fictional characters – from the President’s wife to runaway slaves, Union and Confederate soldiers to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Walt Whitman – we learn that, for all their differences, one thing is clear: the yearning for peace cuts across religious and class divisions, color lines and the Mason-Dixon Line.

•  “Gem of the Ocean” by August Wilson, May 9-11 and 15-18, 2014, directed by John Harris

Set in 1904, when slavery was still a living memory, “Gem of the Ocean” is the story of drifter Citizen Barlow, who arrives at the home of Aunt Ester in search of asylum and spiritual redemption. At 287 years old, Aunt Ester guides Barlow on a soaring, lyrical journey of self-discovery to the mythical City of Bones, on which, Ester tells Barlow, everything is built. Once there, Barlow finds absolution and makes a startling discovery of faith that moves him to act beyond the boundaries of his conscience.

For ticket information go to artscenterlive.org or call 919-929-2787.

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