Bringing It Home: An Interview with Jasson Minadakis, director of The Whipping Man
Samuel W. Flint Tobie Windham, L. Peter Callender, and Nicholas Pelczar in the Bay Area premiere.
Jasson Minadakis, artistic director of Mill Valley's Marin Theatre Company, is no stranger to bringing firsts to the company -- two playwriting prizes, entry into the all-important League of Regional Theaters, and the theater's first Shakespeare production.
Now in his seventh year, Minadakis is still charting new ground, now by directing a production of The Whipping Man. This show is MTC's first-ever coproduction, which means that it and another theater (Virginia Stage Company, in Norfolk, Virginia) share expenses and produce the same show (same set, same director, and same actors) on two different stages. It's also the first show Minadakis has directed that's set in his hometown of Richmond, VA. Matthew Lopez's play follows two freed slaves and their former master, a Confederate soldier, at the intersection of three important events: the end of the Civil War, the assassination of Lincoln, and Passover (the three characters are Jewish).
It's also one of the most-produced plays in America in the past year. We talked to Minadakis about how his background influences his direction, what makes this play so popular, and how to schlep a production across the country.
This play is constantly shifting. It's part action-packed drama, part-philosophical debate, part-morality play, and part-ritual. How do you even describe The Whipping Man?
When you're watching it, you really don't have any idea who these people are as you're seeing them. The playwright is constantly surprising you. For instance, when you sit down to watch the play, you see someone come in, you don't know that it's a soldier yet, you don't know that he's a Confederate, you can tell that he's walking funny, but you're not sure what that is.
Isn't that true of most plays?
Well, then there's this black man with a gun, and they see each other, and all of a sudden they know each other. Then the black man is doing a Jewish prayer, and it's like... you're mind's constantly trying to recalculate what it's seeing. Even if you're not getting the revelations, the thing Matthew has done so well is you're constantly readjusting to every new piece of information you get.
We're also never sure who the protagonist is. There's Caleb (Nicholas Pelczar), a returning Confederate soldier, Simon (L. Peter Callender), his former slave who's been separated from his wife and daughter, and John (Tobie Windham), another former slave who's enjoying wartime looting opportunities.
They're equal in the fact that Matthew in creating the play has given them all secrets to protect. Secrets come out all the way 'til the last line of the play. In terms of intelligence, he plays with a very even deck. He gave some of them more book learning, and he gave others wisdom in terms of life.
For a long time, it seems like one of them has no moral flaws.
But I was delighted to find out at a critical moment that he does. Without that, it would be a much different, much more lopsided play. A lot of elements of this play could very easily be melodramatic if [Lopez] hadn't so properly balanced the characters and given them all flaws and strengths. You can't ever get a handle on who is sitting in the right. By the time you get to the end of the play, you find out that everybody has made a questionable decision in order to make it through.
What do you think Lopez is trying to say with that choice?
That in the world they're dealing with, it's hard to survive if you're too good. You have to have some grit to keep you protected and keep you alive.
In a lot of ways, Caleb, John, and Simon don't interact how we have been led to believe a master and his slaves would interact. For instance, at times, characters use contemporary profanity and syntax. Why not keep the language in the period?
I'm glad [Lopez] went with contemporary language choices. He could have stilted it quite a bit by keeping it too much in the period. We were very lucky in that because we were in Virginia and our dialect coach was actually a Richmond native and had a great-great- aunt who was still alive, we were able to get a really good sound into the production that really helps give it its place without having the words themselves necessarily be archaic.
We also don't typically think of slaves and slave owners as being Jewish. Can you tell us about the history there?
It was pretty common practice in the South for masters of the house to give slaves their religion. There were a couple of reasons: One was to strip their own religion away from them to not let them have an individual identity, to make them part of the larger estate, to take away everything from home so that they had to gravitate toward this new life. Another reason people would do it is that their slaves accompanied them to church, and the slaves needed to participate; they couldn't just stay outside. A third reason why a lot of Jews converted their slaves is that they were in kosher households, and the hands that prepare the food need to be Jewish hands. If you're going to have your slaves prepare your food, they need to be of the faith. The problem, of course, that comes up in the play is that if you actually read Jewish law, you cannot have a slave who's Jewish. In historical times, the slaves of the Jews did not prepare their food because then it's not kosher.
And in this play, this all comes to head over a Passover Seder.
With Act 2, suddenly you have this amazing juxtaposition in the number of layers of what you're watching. You're watching the slaves celebrate their freedom; you're also watching two contemporary African Americans celebrate their religious ancestors' freedom -- it's just staggering. We start thinking about, "What would it be like if black America had the kind of rituals to remember slavery and to remember their ancestors?" You wonder if black society would have the same sort of intense bonds that Jewish culture has because of the way the Seder is designed to create memory and to create understanding and to teach the history of the family of ancestors.
You're from Richmond, where the play takes place. Can you talk a little about the legacy of the Civil War in your hometown?
I grew up with the norm being the monuments on Monument Avenue are Confederate heroes and Virginia heroes. We grew up with two history classes -- one was U.S. history, which was an awful lot of Virginia history, and then we had a separate class that was specifically Virginia history, where we really got down to understanding why U.S. history was actually Virginia history. The idea of Virginia's place in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Old South, the New Republic, Reconstruction -- it was all something I grew up with. It was right on the surface.
What are interracial relations like there?
When you're from the South, if you're from slave country, there's a very mixed bag in terms of what you grow up with, because you grow up closer to black Americans than a lot of people in the North. In the North it feels much more segregated. I didn't grow up with black areas of town. I grew up in mixed areas my entire youth.
This production premiered at Virginia Stage Company, 95 miles south of Richmond, in February. How did the co-production come to pass?
The reason we did this co-production was that when I was talking to the artistic director of Virginia Stage [Chris Hanna], he did not know the play and we'd already slated it in our season. I was telling him that I would kill to be able to work my actors in Virginia so they could get a real sense of the place. That's how we ended up talking about it. Once he read it, he was like, "I have to have this play in my season, and if you're so passionate about it, I would love to figure out how we could do this together."
It's a truism in the theater world that if you move a show to a new space, it dies. How do you prevent that from happening?
The stage space is very similar. The production is being trucked across the country, and we're rebuilding our own set. I think the thing that's going to be more shocking to the actors is how in the audience's laps they are. We're going to have to figure out how to adjust it so the performances aren't overpowering because they've had to reach a much further distance than what they're going to have to here in Marin. It's going to feel like they're more surrounded by our audience than they were in Virginia.
Do you save a lot of money by co-producing?
In this case, by the time you add in moving everything across the country, we're not actually saving that much money. But the great thing for our audience is that by the time they see the play, these actors will have been doing this play together for 2 months.
That's really rare in the Bay Area.
Exactly. Very rare. This is the first time we're bringing in a show where the play has really come together and found its feet and the actors know how to play it in front of an audience. To see the family they've created onstage -- it's unbelievable.
The Whipping Man begins previews Mar. 28 and opens Apr. 2 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Admission is $36-$57.