Civil War historians recall April 1865 as a month of momentous events. Richmond fell. Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. President Lincoln was assassinated. Among such tumult, one occurrence is understandably overlooked — it was Passover.
Playwright Matthew Lopez, however, didn't miss this curious confluence of ritual and uproar. His new play, The Whipping Man — now playing at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I — is about a wounded, Jewish, Confederate soldier who returns to his home, where two of his freed black slaves, who also share the Jewish faith, remain. Together, they hold a seder, the ceremonial meal in which Jews recall their exodus from Egypt.
"It was pretty much a surprise to me," says actor André Braugher of the storyline. The "Homicide: Life on the Streets" actor plays Simon, one of the freed slaves. "But one of the things that I found exciting about the play is it's an unexplored corner of the Civil War. It seems to be an extraordinary set of unlikely events. A lot of things come together in the same week."
In the work, Simon remains at the plantation of his former owner, Caleb DeLeon, because he is waiting with his son for his wife and daughter. "In the course of the fall of Richmond, the family has been scattered," explains Braugher. "I've been up at the hospital with DeLeon. I then return to the house to wait for everybody else. Caleb, the young scion of this DeLeon household, has come back from the siege of Petersburg, wounded." Braugher believes Simon has embraced Judaism willingly, and is not practicing the faith under duress. "Of course, he feels like a Jew, but he hasn't had the practice of a Jew. He doesn't have a rabbi, he hasn't been bar mitzvahed, and he wouldn't count in a minyan," says the actor, using the term for the quorum of ten Jewish men required for certain religious practices. "But the way you're counted and the way you feel are two different things. For the character, he feels substantially connected to the Jewish faith, and he acts like it."