Review: The Whipping Man (Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company/Obsidian Theatre)

The Whipping Man is educational, historical – and captivating – theatre, at Toronto Centre for the Arts

I watched Whipping Man on opening night at the Toronto Centre for the Arts accompanied by our founding editor Megan Mooney. Generally I don’t make the trek out to North York – or close enough – for a show. There’s plenty of great theatre I can watch in the downtown area but, considering that Megan really wanted to see this show, directed by her idol Philip Akin, I knew I would be in for a treat and I was!

When the show started I was sitting there with my notebook discreetly folded in one hand and a pen in the other. I didn’t write a single word for the first 45 minutes at least, since at intermission the page was blank and my hand was full of smudged ink. I decided not to bother with the notes. The show is so intense and sucks you in from the moment the lights go down.

I found this show interesting on so many levels because I don’t know much about American History or the Jewish culture and to watch something where they both intersect was fascinating to me. This might sound really ignorant on my part, but I had no idea that there were African-American slaves kept by Jewish masters during the 1800s. Even more surprising to me was that these slaves over generations embraced their new found faith and made it part of their heritage.

The acting in this piece is phenomenal. The show starts with a pretty violent and emotionally heavy scene. This sets the tone for the show. Sterling Jarvis is exceptional as Simon, the faithful manservant and protector of the family home; Brett Donahue nails his part as the crippled, but still entitled soldier, Caleb DeLeon and Thomas Olajide is perfect as the shit-disturbing hooligan, John.

Megan said her favourite part was the makeshift Seder ritual that was performed by the three characters. She mentioned that Simon’s singing with its gospel-like quality had so much uplifting joy to it. For me it was ironic to see an enslaved Jewish black man singing about the struggles of freedom the Jews had endured when they fled Egypt and the parallels to his own life. Simon’s faith now made complete sense to me. All these centuries later he was still a Jewish man fighting for his freedom. It’s also an interesting commentary on human nature to see a culture that survives slavery then enslaves another.

At the end of the show I felt like there were so many loose ends that I wanted to find out exactly how the story ends, if all those missed connections come together and if slavery really ever ends for Simon and his family, but we are left to draw our own conclusions. When Megan and I discussed it she said, “Sure it would be nice to have it tied neatly in a bow but there were so many components to this story that in some ways it was tied up neatly in a bow at the end”, or something a little more articulate than that.

I encourage everyone to watch this show. The script is great, the acting and direction are fantastic, the set couldn’t be more fitting and the trek is more than worth it. And if you don’t know much about the subject matter you will still be moved to tears and definitely learn a little bit about an important slice of history.


The Whipping Man is playing at the Toronto Centre for the Arts (5040 Yonge St) until April, 14 2013
– Performances run at varying times, see schedule
– Tickets are $42.50 to $62.50, plus applicable taxes and fees
– Tickets can be purchased by calling (416) 733-0545 or online via ticketmaster

* Please note that the show has a content advisory for ages 12 and up




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