PHOTOS: Milwaukee Rep's 'Whipping Man' Examines Freedom After Slavery
But it would be a mistake to call playwright Matthew Lopez' work merely a period piece. The story, featuring a Confederate soldier, returning to his destroyed and abandoned home and reuniting with two of his family’s now-former slaves, covers themes of identity and the meaning of freedom.
But at the heart of the show is an exploration of faith - in this case, the Jewish tradition. The defeated Southern soldier at the heart of the show is Jewish, which may surprise some theater-goers.
Jody Hirsh, the Judaic education coordinator at the Jewish Community Center of Milwaukee who served as a consultant on the show, says tens of thousands of Jewish families in the American South at that time which owned slaves.
Many of those slaves adopted, or were forced to adopt, the religions of their masters, like the play's now former slaves Simon and John. Ironically, the Civil War ended with General Lee's surrender at Appomattox, the same day that the Jewish holiday of Passover began in 1865.
"(At) Passover, there's all this language about 'We were slaves and now we're free and the Lord brought us out of there with an outstretched arm and a mighty hand'...What did those people think? They're having their Seder, they're talking about how we escaped into freedom from Egypt and they're being served by black slaves, the food was cooked by slaves?" Hirsh says. "There's a huge contradiction and I think people just didn't really think about it. It was just the way of life in the South."
But that contradiction and tension is brought into focus as the former slaves celebrate Passover with the son of their former master, Caleb. For the emancipated John and Simon, the Jewish prophesy has come true, while Caleb must adapt to a changed world.
"We look at it today, and it's not just Jews, we say, 'How could we? How could we have done such a thing?' and the play's about, well, how do they negotiate this new ground? Are they friends? Is there something else? Because the black slaves used to be owned by this young white guy," he says.
The show's director Brent Hazelton says he and the actors wanted to make authentic the characters' struggles to reconcile what has happened to and around them.
"We have a moment in time where the world has been fundamentally and irrevocably altered and people have to deal with that," he says. "We see these moments throughout history, whether it's Pearl Harbor, or the Kennedy assassination, or September 11, where the world you go to sleep in at night is fundamentally changed from the world you woke up in in the morning and forever will be and there's no going back. How do you move forward in that new world? How do you make your peace with that?"
Hazelton hopes audiences respond to that central tension and apply it to their modern contexts.
"I think the big picture theme is not necessarily about the civil war, not necessarily about Judaism, but freedom in general, and how you move ahead in your life as a truly free person, real, genuine self-actualization, and this notion that you have to continue to earn it every day," he says.
Hazelton credits the universality of the show's themes for the fact that the award-winning play has been one of the most popular productions to hit American theaters in the last few years.
“The Whipping Man" runs through March 16th at the Stiemke Studio theater. The official opening night is this Saturday.