The Courage to Take the First Step
from Susan Van Dusen
Slavery. Freedom. Past. Future. Hope. Despair. Religious Identity. Family Ties. These are a few of the issues thrown in our faces like the blood and guts of war in Northlight Theatre’s current show, The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez. The playwright connects the chains of slavery that bound the Jews in Egypt thousands of years ago and Black Americans in the South before and during the Civil War. That this is being presented at the beginning of Black History Month is just. That it is presented in Skokie, a community noted for its Jewish population, is right.
As a Jew, as one who marched in Montgomery, Alabama for civil rights and taught in Chicago’s inner-city schools, I was touched by this play. I was brought up with the concept that all people should be treated as equals. I remember being spit on as we marched in Montgomery, barred from using the washroom at a service station, and threatened by rifle-carrying nationalized state guards. But for the first time, after seeing this play, I actually considered what it must be like to be a possession one day, then to be able to leave and begin a new life the next. Especially for those of us who live in Skokie, which is home to so many people who have fled their countries to settle in our community, this play illustrates the courage needed to take that first step out the door.
An extraordinary cast of three men on a dark and stark, deconstructed stage set, weave tales of the horror of war, dreams of love, and broken lives. The play begins just after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. Caleb, the white son of a Jewish businessman, returns to his family home in Richmond, Virginia, grievously wounded. Simon, a newly-freed slave and observant Jew, calm and grounded, has remained at the family home awaiting his former master (with hopes of promised monetary reward), as well as his own wife and daughter. Last to arrive is John, a brash, nervous, devious young man and former slave and “playmate” of Caleb’s.
How do they relate, these three characters who have lived together, are connected by their religion and circumstances, but have such different lives? How will each embrace or hide from an uncertain future? Who will each be? These questions come to mind as the men celebrate Passover, that period of time when the Jews fled Egypt, and relate it to their own lives. The difference, which the audience may understand but the characters do not, is that the Jews wandered in the desert for 40 years before coming to the “promised land.” Jews were able to change gradually from the consciousness of slavery to being free men and women. In the South, one day they were slaves, the next they were free. Moses, leader of the Jews, was able to march his people to a place of freedom. “Father Abraham,” as Simon calls Lincoln, emancipator of the slaves, is dead.
Northlight is to be commended for again taking an unexpected step – choosing this play to follow Neil Simon’s comic The Odd Couple. As with The Outgoing Tide, a thought-provoking play on aging and dementia, Artistic Director BJ Jones trusts that this community will embrace a new look at our political and social history. Please see it. Soon.
Susan Van Dusen has been a teacher, editorial director of WBBM Radio, magazine and newspaper writer. Author of four children’s books, three on the history of Skokie, she is a founder of the cultural initiative “Coming Together in Skokie.” Van Dusen has lived in the Village for 30 years with her husband George, her sons David and Danny, and her grandson Anthony.