Playwright Matthew Lopez breaks down a lot of stereotypes and expectations about slaves, their owners and freedom in his drama "The Whipping Man."
The play, which has its area premiere Jan. 2 at the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, is set in the ruins of a Richmond, Va., home in the waning weeks of the Civil War on the day that President Abraham Lincoln was shot. Before that news has spread, a wounded young Confederate soldier limps his way back home and finds that two of his former slaves are the only people around.
Things don't go as audiences may anticipate, said director Howard Millman said.
"I like the fact that the play peels back like an onion, piece by piece," he said. "Nothing is revealed until it's revealed. The audience is constantly thinking what surprise am I going to get next."
One of those surprises, though revealed early on, is that this home was run by a Jewish family and the slaves took to the faith, too, which Millman and his three-man cast said adds another level of fascination. The play is set during the Jewish festival of Passover, which marked the fleeing of Jewish slaves from Egypt.
"I like what the play says about freedom and the parallels with the Biblical story of Moses freeing slaves who were Jews and Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves who were black," Millman said. "That becomes very potent in the play."
Millman, the longtime producing artistic director of Asolo Repertory Theatre, is directing for the first time at Westcoast, where he served several years as president of the board of directors.
He is working with a cast that includes former "Hill Street Blues" star Taurean Blacque as the oldest slave Simon, Robert Douglas as John, and Drew Foster as the soldier Caleb.
It's a homecoming of a different kind for Foster, who grew up in Sarasota, where he performed at Asolo Rep and many other area theaters before graduating from Juilliard and performing in a long-running national tour of "West Side Story."
It's his first performance in Sarasota since "Rabbit Hole" at Florida Studio Theatre in 2007.
Douglas said the play "challenges the conventional thought of the slave/African-American experience. When you think of the slave African-American in this country, you automatically assume that they were owned by a Christian slave owner. The fact that they were owned by a Jewish slave owner and actually matriculate in a home where Judaism becomes their faith is very exciting. I think it provides an 'a-ha' moment."
That also means that all three actors are immersing themselves in the religious traditions of Passover and spending time learning Hebrew (or as much as they need) to make it authentic.
Millman jokes that he's going to be a stickler for pronunciations and intonation when they recite prayers.
Blacque, who has an extensive résumé of stage performances in addition to his film and television work, admires how the play deals with a period of drastic change for all the characters as new truths are revealed.
"The big question for Simon is how does he handle the truth. What's going on in his life, between his family and the new younger slave owner, who he also helped to raise," he said.
All the characters are facing transitions, the slaves adjusting to freedom, what that means to them and where they go from the home they have known most of their lives. Caleb also is dealing with an injury and what becomes of him, his family and his home in a new world.
"Before the play opens, everybody knew their place in the world and now nobody does," Millman said. "Everybody is searching, everybody is trying to solve the problem for themselves. To suddenly go from slave to not slave and master to not master, must have been a huge, cultural shift for everybody."
That was always an issue for John, Douglas said, because he's had an inner conflict about his own place. "He always felt he was different from the other enslaved Africans on the plantations. He never knew how he fit in."
Foster, looking a bit like Grizzly Adams with a full beard and tousled hair to fit a soldier who has been long away from home, said he's never been in a play in which his character asked so many questions.
"About 50 percent of my lines end with a question mark. There's so much searching." That leads the actor to approach his character and performance in a different way.
"When you've got a question in the play, you try to start with the stakes and why I need the answer, and what I fear the answer will be."
Millman said the play provides a different experience from the traditional "Gone with the Wind" view of life on a Southern plantation.
"This was never a plantation," he said. "This was a Jewish businessman who had a household in the city, a manor house in Richmond. It's not a plantation with lots of slaves picking cotton."
As the play progresses, Blacque said it becomes a story about forgiveness.
"How do I learn to forgive after everything is revealed, and everything going on in my life? How do I go forward? It's about how I have to live with this," he said. "Do I forgive or do I stay bitter? Do I turn my back on you (referring to John) or you (pointing to Caleb)?"
Just as Simon and John need Caleb's help, he needs theirs to survive his injuries.
"You never know who you're going to need," Douglas said. "The person who you think of as your enemy may be the person who saves you in the end. We're all human beings, regardless of our differences, at the end of the day."
“The Whipping Man” runs Jan. 2 through Feb. 2 at the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, 1646 10th Way, Sarasota. Tickets are $28.50. 366-1505; wbttsrq.org