Raleigh Little Theatre’s Production of The Whipping Man Demands Witness

Phillip Bernard Smith stars as Simon in RLT's production of The Whipping Man (photo by David Watts)
Phillip Bernard Smith stars as Simon in RLT's production of The Whipping Man (photo by David Watts)
Phillip Bernard Smith stars as Simon in RLT's production of <em>The Whipping Man</em> (photo by David Watts)
Phillip Bernard Smith stars as Simon in RLT‘s production of The Whipping Man (photo by David Watts)

When Israel was in Egypt’s land:
Let my people go,
Oppress’d so hard they could not stand,
Let my People go.

Go down, Moses,
Way down in Egypt’s land,
Tell old Pharaoh,
Let my people go.

Negro Spiritual

It is April 10, 1865. Yesterday, in the Virginian village of Appomattox, Confederate Army Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to the Union Army under Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

Today, as chance would have it, begins Passover — the Jewish festival commemorating the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery.

The historical connection should be quite evident. But is there a story here?

In 2006, an untrained Puerto Rican-American playwright, Matthew Lopez, asked and eventually answered this question when his first play, The Whipping Man, premiered at Luna Stage Company in West Orange, NJ. The answer is an unequivocal “Yes.” The play has been staged regularly across the United States and Canada ever since.

White Christians owned slaves, using the Bible as justification; and many free black families did the same. This we all know. But American Jews owned slaves as well. The justification behind this is less clear and appears thoroughly hypocritical. Lopez imagines a Jewish family in transition: a wounded Confederate soldier and two (freed only yesterday) slaves as they grapple with their new roles, while celebrating Passover. It is time for these hypocrisies to be spoken — and sung.

Raleigh Little Theatre artistic director Patrick Torres expertly directs RLT‘s current production of The Whipping Man, performed in the intimate Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre. He throws the audience — willing or not — into the frenetic, often disturbing scenario, maintaining a speed and movement in his staging that makes the play more thriller than drama.

RLT regular Duncan Jenner has assembled an accomplished technical team. With Miyuki Su (arguably the Triangle’s most detail-oriented set designer) on board to create the freshly charred ruins of the DeLeons’ home and Kaitlin Gill to design the arrestingly mysterious lighting (she is not afraid of shadows and darkness). Together, they create one of RLT‘s most haunting and encapsulating scenic environments in recent memory.

Ryan Ladue (left) and Phillip Bernard Smith star as Caleb and Simon at RLT (photo by David Watts)
Ryan Ladue (left) and Phillip Bernard Smith star as Caleb and Simon at RLT (photo by David Watts)

Vicki Olson’s grounded costuming and Shanna Burns’ props provide realism without ostentation, and John Maruca’s sound design — especially when synced with Gill’s lighting cues — is striking.

Rounding out the expert team is Elaine Petrone (whose stage management on this production is second-to-none), Heather J. Strickland (whose fight choreography gives the show its most intense and terrifying moments), and Akiva Fox (whose dramaturgical work here is of the highest order — providing the production team with imperative historical context and aiding the audience with helpful background information in the playbill).

Phillip Bernard Smith brings ample experience to the table as Simon. His execution of this role is a veritable master class in acting: how to develop a complex, vivid character without cliché or dishonesty. It is a passionate, but tempered performance; and if anyone ever deserved a hefty paycheck for community theater acting, it is Smith.

Ryan Ladue effectively communicates the unbearable physical and mental anguish of the battle-weary Caleb DeLeon: the vulnerability, the fear, and the woe. The nauseatingly accurate makeup design only works because of the agony that Ladue instills in the viewer through his primal, fearless performance.

Chris Helton’s disarming and irresistible characterization of the youthful John is where the true heart of the play lies: a simultaneously optimistic and pessimistic view of this world turned upside-down. He is our most conflicted character and undergoes the most profound shifts — something to which Helton commits wholeheartedly and sells with grace.

RLT‘s The Whipping Man is a triumvirate of design craft, kinetic direction, and fearless performance. It demands to be witnessed. You will want to look away, but you mustn’t.

The play falls in Rated R territory for disturbing imagery, intense subject matter, and language.

Chris Helton stars as John in <em>The Whipping Man</em> at Raleigh Little Theatre (photo by David Watts)
Chris Helton stars as John in The Whipping Man at Raleigh Little Theatre (photo by David Watts)

SECOND OPINION: Jan. 10th Triangle Arts and Entertainment review by Susie Potter: http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2017/01/rlts-the-whipping-man-is-gritty-gripping-and-important/; and Jan. 14th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Alan R. Hall: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=8303.

Raleigh Little Theatre presents THE WHIPPING MAN at 8 p.m. Jan. 19-21, 3 p.m. Jan. 22, 8 p.m. Jan. 26-28, and 3 p.m. Jan. 29 in the Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607.

TICKETS: $24 ($20 students and seniors 62+).

BOX OFFICE: 919-821-3111 or https://raleighlittletheatre.secure.force.com/ticket/#details_a0Sd000000PKYISEA5.

SHOW: http://raleighlittletheatre.org/shows/16-17/whipping.html. 2016-17 SEASON: http://raleighlittletheatre.org/tickets/memberships.html.

PRESENTER: http://www.raleighlittletheatre.org/, https://www.facebook.com/RaleighLittleTheatre, https://twitter.com/RLT1936, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raleigh_Little_Theatre, and http://www.youtube.com/user/raleighlittletheatre.

VENUE: http://raleighlittletheatre.org/tickets/seating.html.

MAPS/DIRECTIONS: http://raleighlittletheatre.org/about/map-directions.html.

PARKING: http://raleighlittletheatre.org/about/parking.html.

NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices are available for all shows.

NOTE 2: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 22nd, performance.


The Whipping Man (2006 Montclair, NJ and 2011 Off-Broadway play): http://www.samuelfrench.com/p/1977/whipping-man-the (Samuel French, Inc.), http://www.matthewlopez.com/plays/whippingman.html (Matthew Lopez’s website), and http://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/5170 (Internet Off-Broadway Database).

The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).

Study Guide: https://actorstheatre.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Whipping-Man-Play-Guide.pdf (Actors Theatre of Louisville).

Matthew Lopez (playwright): http://www.matthewlopez.com/ (official website) amd http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/39641 (Internet Off-Broadway Database).

Patrick Torres (director): https://www.facebook.com/patrick.torres.585 (Facebook page).


Dustin K. Britt is a Triangle native, holds a master’s degree in special education from East Carolina University, and teaches locally. He can be spotted all over the Triangle area either painting scenery or chewing o n it. He has received local theater award nominations for doing both. He is a devoted cinephile and author of Hold the Popcorn, a movie blog on Facebook. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment He can also be found via his official Facebook page and on Twitter @dkbritt85.