Civil war seder — with a Jewish Confederate soldier

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Ed Smith, who is the director of the Black Rep’s upcoming production “The Whipping Man,” says he was “blown away” by the power of the script. The play, written by Matthew Lopez, deals with the end of the Civil War, a returning Jewish Confederate soldier and a Passover seder he shares with his family’s freed African-American slaves.

“The Whipping Man,” which premiered in New York City in 2011, tells the story of three men in Virginia bound together by their shared history, Judaism and untold secrets. The playwright, who has no personal connection to Judaism or slavery, is descended from a Puerto Rican father and a Russian-Polish mother. He grew up Episcopalian. But as a gay man, he has said he  can relate to the isolation and ridicule experienced by both African-Americans and Jews. His parents were teachers and experts on the Civil War. 


Smith is an award-winning director and educator with extensive knowledge of both African-American and Jewish history as well the Civil War period. In 2009, he received the prestigious Lloyd Richards Director’s Award from the National Black Theatre Festival.  He has directed over 150 plays in the United States, Canada and the West Indies.

The Jewish Light caught up with Smith during a break in rehearsals for a telephone interview. 

What attracted you to want to direct the Black Rep’s production of “The Whipping Man”? Are you especially interested in the Civil War and its immediate aftermath?

Well, I am interested in theater. And the reason I’m saying that is that it is giving me the opportunity to learn about other cultures. I was in New York directing another play, and I had heard about “The Whipping Man,” which I had not seen, but when I got a copy of the script, I was just blown away because of all of the elements that the playwright, Matthew Lopez, put in the play.

How did you follow up on your interest in this many-layered play?

I called a friend of mine, Dr. Saul Elkin, who is the director of the Jewish Theater of Buffalo, who was impressed by the script and became interested in it. In turn, I suggested that Ron Himes, artistic director of the Black Rep, consider producing it. When I sent the script to Ron, I said, “You must read this play.” He called me a few months later and said he wanted to do it.

To what extent is the story of “The Whipping Man” historically accurate? It may come as a surprise to many Jews that Jewish people actually fought for the South during the Civil War and that some of them were slave-owners.

From what I have learned, there were of course Jews in the South, and about 1 percent of them lived in Virginia during that period. Those who did own slaves did not own plantations, including the DeLeon family of the play. The two freed slaves in the play, Simon and John, differed from other slaves of that era because they did not pick cotton on a plantation.  They lived somewhat better than other slaves, and they adopted Judaism, the faith of the owner family.

Were you familiar with these aspects of Southern, African-American and Jewish history prior to getting involved with this play?

I became familiar with many of the Jewish aspects through my friendship with Saul Elkin of the Buffalo Jewish Theater, where I spent about 20 years associated with Buffalo University.  Prior to that, I had grown up in Philadelphia and went to the Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School, where I took history among other subjects. The school was very progressive and interested in the arts, and had guest artists like Paul Robeson and Duke Ellington. Like most high school students, I attended history classes, but did not take away much from them. That is why theater is so important in plays like “The Whipping Man.” We can learn a lot of history and its lessons from stories like this that hold our attention.

How have you made sure that the Jewish aspects of the play, including the Passover seder scenes, are accurate?

We were very fortunate to have had the very helpful advice of two local rabbis, Susan Talve (of Central Reform Congregation) and Andy Kaster (of Washington University Hillel).  When it came to pronunciations of Hebrew terms, what things were kosher for Passover, and the history of the Exodus, they were very informative and supportive.

Were there any unexpected decisions that had to be made on the Jewish issues within the play?

There was the scene in which horsemeat was served at the seder because beef was not available. Horsemeat cannot be kosher, but since that was the only available meat, it was considered OK to serve it under those circumstances.

How did the slaves in the play, Simon and John, come to embrace the Jewish religion?

Simon, the older man, who was about 50, had learned much about the religion of his masters, and had actually learned how to read. It was not uncommon for slaves to embrace the names and the religions of their masters. 

The title “The Whipping Man” suggests that the DeLeon family treated their slaves with cruelty, like Simon Legree in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Is that the basis of the title?

Caleb, the young Confederate veteran, does whip Simon. He did not let Caleb know that he had learned his ABCs and did not teach the other slaves. Apart from that incident, the slaves were not mistreated by the family.

The play contains a long-standing family secret. Can you share with us what that is all about?

I don’t want to spoil the enjoyment of the play by revealing this key dramatic moment. But the soldier comes home, finds his family home blown apart, and is reunited with his former slaves. There is a deep family secret that has not been told, and the play dramatically brings all that out. 

What do you hope audiences will take away from this play?

The importance of people talking to each other across ethnic and cultural barriers. We must speak to each other and get to know each other and respect our cultural, ethnic and religious differences as well as the things that we have in common. We have scheduled a number of “talk-backs” so that we can encourage such dialogue.