It is unlikely that the phrase “noble pursuit” brings to mind a stage production. And, even if you do wrap your head around that connection, you probably don’t equate the phrase with something happening at a South Jersey coastal town theater.
“The Whipping Man” takes place in April of 1865, and is the story of Caleb Deleon, a Jewish Confederate officer from Virginia. Seriously wounded in the war, Deleon returns to his home to be cared for by two former slaves, Simon and John.
I asked Roy Steinberg, the company’s Producing Artistic Director, how this play fits the philosophy that drives Cape May Stage.
“Part of our mission is to produce theatre that acts as a catalyst for conversations about the ethical and moral questions of the day,” Steinberg said.
“We aspire to entertain with the highest level of artists and productions, but we also want people to continue to think about what they have seen after the curtain goes down.”
There is no doubt that “The Whipping Man” fulfills those intentions.
The show’s director, Gregg T. Daniel, sees this as a story for all time. Though it shows a specific slice of life and a particular period in our nation’s past, its scope is much broader. Even though the war is over, the play points out problems between regions and people that still existed.
“The play is set in American history,” said Daniel, “but it presents a unique viewpoint.”
“The Whipping Man” takes place on the last night of Passover, with Simon preparing a humble Seder.
“Bit by bit, with a prayer or two, you begin to understand that these are Jews,” he continued. “It’s wonderful to see the reveal.
“This also allows us to look closely at the relationship between slave and slave owner,” said Daniel, “and to realize there’s more than one simple interpretation.”
Roy Steinberg frequently dons the director’s hat for Cape May Stage productions. For “The Whipping Man,” Steinberg asked Daniel to take on the role. I asked him about that choice.
“(Gregg) Daniel and I have a wonderful collaborative relationship, and we view this work in very similar way,” he said.
Steinberg didn’t consider it essential for the director to be African-American, but said that ethnicity was a consideration.
“I thought the experience of being a person of color in 21st century America would help inform the interpretation of the story,” he said.
Steinberg contributed from his personal experiences by acting as a Judaica consultant for the Hebrew prayers and cultural references.
Daniel drew heavily on what he already knew, but also did a fair amount of research.
“The story is steeped in Richmond, Virginia history,” said Daniel. “I wanted to reach beyond my assumptions about that time period and the Civil War, and be open to discovering new things.”
Daniel also worked closely with the crew on the design, sound and lighting details that created the overall production atmosphere.
“Our team did a remarkable job,” Daniel said. “They transformed the interior of the theatre building into the ruins of what had once been this grand Southern townhouse.”
Steinberg filled in some details. “The theatre building is from 1853 and is on the historic register,” he said. “Since the story takes place in 1862, we were able to use architectural elements and the actual walls to create a site-specific set.”
There is also a projected slideshow featuring authentic photographs of people alive at that time.
“These are not sensational photos, but just pictures of regular people,” Daniel said. “They establish a time and a place. They put you in that world.”
Daniel finds these visuals somewhat startling. “The soldiers were so young. Yet you see so much in their faces,” he added.
“It is a reminder of the cost of war.”
There is also a soundscape that further enhances the sensory experience.
“We considered using battle hymns when we first thought about music,” Daniel said, “but we chose to go with slave songs instead.
“We found these incredibly rich recordings. There’s no instrumentation, no amplification, only the human voice.
“When people hear a single voice singing, it has the power to open up their ears – and their hearts.”
That open invitation for the audience to react and respond is at the core of what makes “The Whipping Man” so poignant and powerful. And Cape May Stage takes it farther by offering talk-backs, which give the audience a chance to share questions and thoughts with the crew and cast.
Steinberg and Daniel report that these sessions are extremely popular, and both agree that audiences seem especially eager to engage in discourse.
“It’s 2016. We are getting ready to elect a new president. I can’t remember a time when people were so riveted,” Daniel said, “and this story stimulates conversation.”
Steinberg points out, though, that talk-backs are not just issues-focused.
“People are also fascinated by the process and what goes on behind-the-scenes,” Steinberg said. “In one talk-back, someone asked if we wash out the blood every night.”
After “The Whipping Man” closes on June 24, Cape May Stage will present “Sex With Strangers” June 29–July 29, and “Barefoot in the Park” August 3–September 9.
This programming works well for the company, Steinberg says. “The audience changes depending on the time of year,” he said. “In May and early June, it is mostly local people or those who come to see a specific show.”
In summer months, there are many more seasonal visitors and plays are selected with that in mind.
“One of our core values is diversity, so we strive to include works with wide-ranging topics and artists. We want to entertain our audience,” Steinberg said, “but also want plays that resonate and have a seriousness of purpose.
“It’s a delicate balance.”
“The Whipping Man” is on stage now through June 24 at Cape May Stage, 31 Perry Street, Cape May, NJ 08204. For tickets or more information, visit www.capemaystage.org.