Fridays, the Jewish Community Center on 16th Street NW is mostly quiet and dark in observation of Shabbat. But still, deep in the belly of the JCC, a theatrical rumbling is building its steam. The Whipping Man is this Spring’s theatrical offering from Theater J. A small cast of rugged and well read gentlemen share the story of a Confederate soldier and two newly freed slaves returning home after the recently concluded war.
Alexander Strain and Mark Hairston sat down with me at the Distrikt Bistro at the JCC, and shared how this piece is beginning to come together and what it may illuminate about a side of our American history we may be in the dark about.
Alexander: The character I play is Caleb DeLeon. He’s returning home from Petersburg after everything has gone, sort of.. well, south…not to…(laughs) things have gone really bad. He returns home, finds his house destroyed, everyone’s left, and he doesn’t really know what’s going on. And as the play goes on, it gets revealed, you know, why he left, why his family left. But, you also learn that the war, to him, was more than just about, sort of the typical things we hear about why a Confederate soldier is fighting. That it was about state’s rights and all these other arguments. We learn that there are much deeper things going on for him. And for him, it’s really a love story, believe it or not.
Joe: A love story in what respect?
Alexander: We learn that he had a relationship with one of the women who was living in his household as a slave. That becomes a question. Can it actually be qualified as love if you technically own this person? That becomes one of the debates of the play.
And your character, Mark?
Mark: I’m playing John, one of the newly freed slaves in the DeLeon house. John, just like Caleb, comes home under mysterious circumstances. There’s a lot of secrets, we find out. I think the main thing about John is that he has a lot of anger, he has a lot of hurt, and a lot of questions. John is a philosopher at heart.
A big chunk of the play is devoted to him questioning his faith. Being raised in a Jewish home, in the Jewish faith from a very young age, he has to reconcile being a Jew and being a slave. The Torah says that you can’t enslave your brethren. Jews cannot enslave Jews. So, he’s forced to wonder, “Am I a Jew or am I a slave?”. That’s a big argument in the play for him. He’s also forced to deal with love. How he expresses love, how he’s denied love. It’s a lot that goes on with this play.
Alexander: We’re also being cagey because a lot of the play is a mystery. We don’t want to give anything away.
Keep the mystery a mystery for the audience, of course. So, once you accept a role like this, in what is technically a period piece, what are some of the steps you take to prepare before rehearsals begin?
Mark: Research, especially in a period piece. It’s very important for me to know the world I’m living in and what the laws are that govern society, because that informs how I interact with the world around me. How I interact with the environment. It’s one thing to be a Caleb, coming back home to this mansion, to this house, having grown up there being his family home. It’s another thing for John to come home and this be the house that he has been a slave in. It’s very different in the way you react to things. For me, each different play brings it’s own different process and I have to attack the script in very different ways depending on what I feel I need. There’s definitely a breaking down of text and analyzing scenes, but it’s really about looking for clues for character in the text. I feel that everything I need for my character is in the text.
Alexander: For me, it’s most important to try and contextualize everything. One of the key things for my character, at the beginning of the play, is that he spent eleven days traveling from Petersburg to Richmond, which in today’s world would take…what? Maybe an hour? If that? And it’s taken him eleven days. Now, admittedly, he’s wounded, he’s riding on horseback, but it’s trying to put yourself in a mindset of a world where, you know, I can’t send a text message and say, “Hey, I’m held up. I’ll be there in seven more days.”. There is no communication. There aren’t the road systems. There aren’t cars. It’s a totally, totally different world, is spite of it being so close.
Now, I’d be the first to admit, there’s no way you can literally contextualize that. We’ll never understand what that actually means. But, you have to think about those things. Before you come into rehearsal you have to, sort of, imagine what that must have been like. It informs everything else. That’s only one example but I think that sort of carries through-out the entire play.
Mark: No electricity.
Alexander: Yeah. The fact that we have to light candles, in the house. What did that mean? Once it got to night time, you didn’t want to go outside. Not because, you know, someone’s going to rob you, because you couldn’t see anything. It’s trying to understand things like that.
Did either of you feel the need to sink into research on the Jewish lifestyle as well?
Alexander: I think, to a certain extent, that there is that. Again, it’s contextualizing. It’s trying to discover what did it mean to be Jewish, in a general sense, during the Civil War. You actually learn that the Jewish population in the United States at that time was sort of uniquely and strangely…almost, for stake of a better phrase, assimilated. That they looked far more like the general population in one sense than, maybe Jews in Europe, or Jews elsewhere. That being said, the cultural things are still there. So, understanding what is Passover? What’s a Seder? There’s a huge part of the play that’s this Seder, and what is that for? And what do each of the steps mean? Certainly, understanding those things were important.
Mark: And also, it’s sort of…it’s interesting how this play, in a way, examines religion. How…
(Mark’s phone suddenly interrupts.)
Mark: In a way, this play examines how religion is inherited. We know more about, sort of, Christianity as it relates to the black slave community and how that was taken on by them as a substitute for traditional African religion. So, it’s interesting how Judaism is taken on by these slaves, second-hand, as their own tradition and how they make it their own.
How do you reconcile the question of the Torah saying that you can’t enslave your brethren but then coming home as a Jewish slave of Jews?
Alexander: I think that’s one of the main questions of the play, actually. The parallels between the two cultures. Obviously, the literal Jewish enslavement was a couple of millennium earlier, but the parallels are there. Slavery is slavery, and so it’s trying to take this past, that even the Jewish culture might take for granted, and applying it in a very modern context to a very immediate pain and suffering. It’s a fascinating question.
Mark: Passover’s about freedom and here we are all drawn together in this intimate space having to deal with this new world order. Learning to deal with this new freedom.
Once you step into rehearsals, your solo process is done. Now, you’re with the other actors, under the watchful eye of your director. How does the process change? What have these rehearsals been like for you?
Alexander: I think the interesting thing is that I’d never worked with either of these two actors. I think there’s always a process of feeling each other out and having to figure out, “How does this person work?”, “What is it that they need?”, you know. Where are they going to be in the process in relation to where I am in the process and just respecting that and learning to understand it. Especially with a play that’s so intimate, I mean, there’s only three actors. Trying not to get yourselves into any conflicting situations with each other can be delicate. But, thankfully, we’re a pretty easy-going cast. It’s just been mutual respect and respecting what each person needs.
Mark: It’s very important that the rehearsal space feel safe. Safety is huge, and respect. I think that, I’ve felt nothing but that this entire process from Jennifer (director Jennifer Nelson). She’s been so great at letting us play and discover, and not…you know…different directors have their own styles. Some are a little more hands-on, you know, controlling. I come from a school of training where I just like to let go and try anything and see where it takes me. So, it’s been wonderful to have that kind of safety to do that, to explore and discover.
What is the biggest obstacle in putting up a piece like this? Whether it be technically, textually, transitionally, what is the biggest challenge?
Alexander: Just my gut response to that, I think is that there’s obviously been a lot of discussion of race, as it relates to this play and as it relates to our society. I think anytime you’re involved in a play that you can sort of draw that out as a topic or as a, potentially an agenda of what the play is going on about, you never want it to look like you’re in a position of total understanding. You never want to come across as righteous. That I have ownership of this issue and you as an audience are in the wrong and you need to be educated on how ignorant you are. So, it’s a very delicate thing, about how you portray that. I wouldn’t even know how to explain how you don’t go down that path, but somehow you just have to be sensitive to it. I think that’s a huge obstacle. It is a delicate journey where you make it clear, but not preachy.
Mark: And I think, the playwright’s done a good job in making these characters very complex and really multidimensional, and ugly. There’s real ugliness to them all. There’s vulnerability to them all. It gives them a richness.
What do you feel, as an actor, is your biggest opportunity with this piece? What do you get to play that excites you?
Mark: For me, honestly, I feel this piece has offered me a chance to pull in everything I’ve learned and it’s forcing me to use a lot of the tools I’ve had to acquire. I feel like it’s the right time to have this role. I’ve learned so much in just this past year working with such amazing artists, just in this past season. I feel like it’s challenging me to use everything. There’s dialect work, there’s impediment work, there’s drunkenness, there’s injuries. There’s everything in this play. And I have to go there emotionally. There’s a lot going on. For me it’s a wonderful opportunity and challenge to use all that. Like for every actor, you want that role that you have to just really invest yourself in.
Alexander: It’s a very different role for me from what I usually play. I tend to play roles that are very head oriented. There’s a lot of intellectual influence on their decisions and this guy just isn’t that. He’s so much more heart oriented, and he’s much more impulsive. Less thoughtful. So, that’s actually a challenge, to think like, “Why doesn’t this line make any sense? I don’t know why he’s saying this.”, and it’s that there isn’t a reason, he’s just impulsive. He acts before he thinks. That’s been a challenge.
And the other side of it it that, I think, while this character is Jewish he’s also a very American character. And, that’s a little bit different for me, not that I haven’t played Americans, but a lot of the characters I’ve played have a sort of worldly sensibility and they exist apart from America. This character is entrenched in America. That’s exciting for me. I also get to play a character who has one leg, which is always fun.
Alexander Strain, Mark Hairston, and David Emerson Tony are appearing in Theater J’s, The Whipping Man, opens April 18 and runs thru May 20, 2012 at the DC at the DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 Sixteenth Street, NW Washington, DC.