The Whipping Man, New Repertory Theatre

Charles Mosesian Theater
Aresenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, Mass.
January 25 – February 16, 2014

By Matthew Lopez
Directed by Benny Sato Ambush
Role: Simon

As Simon, discovering that the intruder in the DeLeon house is the injured Caleb (Jesse Hinson), his former owner's son. (PHOTO: Andrew Brilliant)

As Simon, discovering that the intruder in the DeLeon house is the injured Caleb (Jesse Hinson), his former owner’s son. (PHOTO: Andrew Brilliant)

While John (Keith Mascoll) holds Caleb (Jesse Hinson) down, Simon reluctantly begins amputating Caleb's gangrenous leg. (PHOTO: Andrew Brilliant)

While John (Keith Mascoll) holds Caleb (Jesse Hinson) down, Simon reluctantly begins amputating Caleb’s gangrenous leg. (PHOTO: Andrew Brilliant)

As Simon, recalling for Caleb (Jesse Hinson) and John (Keith Mascoll) the time he met Abraham Lincoln and they bowed to one other (PHOTO: Andrew Brilliant)

As Simon, recalling for Caleb (Jesse Hinson) and John (Keith Mascoll) the time he met Abraham Lincoln and they bowed to one other (PHOTO: Andrew Brilliant)

As Simon, comforting Caleb (Jesse Hinson) in his grief (PHOTO: Andrew Brilliant)

As Simon, comforting Caleb (Jesse Hinson) in his grief (PHOTO: Andrew Brilliant)

Leading Caleb (Jesse Hinson) and John (Keith Mascoll) in a Passover Seder to celebrate his and John's newfound freedom (PHOTO: Andrew Brilliant)

Leading Caleb (Jesse Hinson) and John (Keith Mascoll) in a Passover Seder to celebrate his and John’s newfound freedom (PHOTO: Andrew Brilliant)

As Simon, demanding to know why John (Keith Mascoll) refrained from telling him that his wife and daughter were sold by Mr. DeLeon (PHOTO: Andrew Brilliant)

As Simon, demanding to know why John (Keith Mascoll) refrained from telling him that his wife and daughter were sold by Mr. DeLeon (PHOTO: Andrew Brilliant)

As Simon, revealing to Caleb (Jesse Hinson) that he too was subject to Mr. DeLeon's wrath and the Whipping Man's cruelty (PHOTO: Andrew Brilliant)

As Simon, revealing to Caleb (Jesse Hinson) that he too was subject to Mr. DeLeon’s wrath and the Whipping Man’s cruelty (PHOTO: Andrew Brilliant)

Critical Response

“The acting was outstanding.”
—Maria Bourassa, Goldstar Reviews (January 26, 2014)

This play was extremely powerful. The interactions among the actors showed a range of emotions. . . . I was captured with the intensity of everything.”
—Gail Zimmerman, Goldstar Reviews (January 26, 2014)

“As Simon, the elder of the two slaves who remain, Johnny Lee Davenport delivers a powerful performance. His deep and resonant voice and his power to command a sense of seriousness and conscience carries the weight of the show. . . .The turns of the story are intense, but feel constructed, and, ultimately, the strength of Simon’s demeanor, so beautifully rendered by Davenport, gets challenged by one of these narrative turns.
sssssOverall, the production does a reasonable job of bringing out the dramatic contours, but it is Johnny Lee Davenport’s interpretation of Simon which is the standout. Seeing his performance and feeling its gravitas is the main reason to see this performance.”
BADMan (Charles Munitz), Boston Arts Diary (January 27, 2014)

“Director Benny Sato Ambush has a remarkable cast to breathe humanity into what might have been the stereotypical characters we often see in film and on television. . . . Johnny Lee Davenport makes the fatherly man both kind and righteous. He answers the soldier’s indictment of God with ‘War is not proof of His absence. It’s proof of His absence in men’s hearts.’ He is under no obligation to stay with his former owner’s son but he’s a humane man so he ministers to his wounds. Nor is he under any further obligation to remain Jewish, but Lopez makes a good case for parallels with the Israelites, ties witnessed in many an African­American spiritual. . . . Sato Ambush and company create a moving portrait.”
Beverly Creasey, Boston Arts Review (January 28, 2014)

“The play is primarily compelling because of its fully committed, emotional, and resonant performances. Jesse Hinson as Caleb the returning, wounded soldier is flawed yet sympathetic as he struggles to find his place in the new social order. It’s a tricky role that Hinson makes deeply engaging. Likewise Keith Mascoll as John a rascal of a character, a former slave who has been continually abused and in trouble and is clearly vulnerable beneath his swagger. And then there’s the astonishing Johnny Lee Davenport, who brings yet another nuanced performance to a solid repertoire of powerful, good men laid low by circumstance, but who loom large by virtue of their abiding humanity. Davenport never allows his character—the forbearing Simon—to lapse into sentimentality, but keeps a strong hold on his dignity and his rage as he comes to grips with the mighty truth.”
Joyce Kulhawik, Joyce’s Choices (January 29, 2014)

“The irony of the converted former slave conducting the Seder service despite the initial objections of his previous master is at the center of the work. Clearly, Simon sees the world they are beginning much more clearly than Caleb, and the parallels between their new world and the ancient lot of the Hebrews are extraordinarily moving. During the course of the service some significant (but, it must be said, easily anticipated) revelations occur, but the plot points are not as crucial as the conflicting underlying tectonic shifts among this trio of fine actors. As masterfully directed by Benny Sato Ambush, the three of them (especially Davenport, whose Simon towers over the others) are at the top of their game. Despite some very minor flaws in the writing, this is a thoughtful and thought­ provoking creation.”
Jack Craib, South Shore Critic (January 28, 2014)

“Simon is the most centered of the trio. Jewish traditions matter deeply to him, as we see when he organizes a ceremony to mark the first night of Passover, using hardtack in place of matzo. Simon’s faith is more real and tangible to him than it is to Caleb, who lost his capacity for belief on the bloody battlefield. . . . Davenport takes a while to hit his stride in the New Rep production (or at least he did on opening night), but he eventually delivers a performance with the gravitas, moral weight, and power to move us that we’ve come to expect from this fine actor. He is especially poignant in capturing the grief Simon feels upon hearing news of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.”
Don Aucoin, The Boston Globe (January 29, 2014)

“As Simon, Johnny Lee Davenport brings a decency, self-confidence and self-knowledge to the play’s pivotal character. He embodies the shuffling, obedient slave of just yesterday, while evidencing the emerging freeman, at the helm of his future.”
—Shelley A. Sacket, The Jewish Journal Massachusetts (January 29, 2014)

Davenport is masterful in building his character from the ground up. Simon is weary, but steadfast with a seriousness of purpose as he takes charge of the situation, doing what has to be done in the face of Caleb’s life-threatening injury. Knowing that he is free, Simon walks a fine line between self-respect and respect for the other man because that’s how he thinks it should be. When he informs Caleb that he should be asking Simon for something, rather than telling him to do it, Davenport shows grace and patience, as if instructing a child. Simon is true to himself and, although flawed like any man, does his best to practice his faith and encourages the two younger men to do the same. The character is well-written and Davenport brings forth each of his many dimensions, going deep into the well for the climactic reveal just before he departs the stage.”
Nancy Grossman, Broadway World Boston (January 31, 2014)

“There were many powerful moments opening night where the audience sat in rapt silence taken in by the story, acting, and directing. . . . Benny Santo Ambush masterfully directs this well-crafted production. Jesse Hinson does a wonderful job as Caleb and although he spends almost the entire play either on the floor or in a chair is able to provide depth and draw in the audience. Johnny Lee Davenport gives an amazing performance as Simon showing great depth and variety of emotion in this role. It’s always great to see such good acting. It seemed that Keith Mascoll took a few minutes to settle in as John, but once he did he delivered a solid performance. Kudos should be given to the entire design team for the beautiful set and the very cool rain effect. There were some moments that were tough to sit through (and not because of the acting or directing!) watching the characters go through some of the scenes was tough—but that’s the intent—to make the audience feel uncomfortable at times and this production succeeded—and it was well worth it to be able to experience this production.”
Frank Furnari, Backstage at the New Rep Theatre, (January 31, 2014)

 “In its look at relationships that are unequal and troubled, The Whipping Man has echoes of another play in which Davenport shined—Athol Fugard’s searing ‘Master Harold’ . . . and the boys at Gloucester Stage, where he also performed under the direction of the acclaimed Benny Sato Ambush. . . . When it comes to setting a standard for the other members of the cast, it’s lead or get out of the way, and Davenport leads the way as a man who has stayed the course with the DeLeon family, while also tenderly and faithfully observing the rituals of Passover, in the midst of chaos and despair. . . . Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and the uproar around it are an opportunity for Davenport to deliver a spellbinding monologue on an encounter with the man and what the man meant to him—and his race.”
Rich Fahey, On Boston Stages (January 31, 2014)

Davenport is a terrific actor and brings considerable heft to Simon, who’s by far the most admirable and appealing character. Davenport is often very moving, particularly during a scene in which he announces Lincoln’s assassination and describes having met him. His voice is rich and beautiful not only when he speaks but also as he sings snatches of ‘Let My People Go’ during the Seder. . . . When he explodes with fury late in the play, he’s a force to reckon with.”
David Brooke Andrews, The Patriot Ledger (February 2, 2014)

The Whipping Man was a wonderful performance. The acting was first rate, along with a set which contributed to a memorable performance. This play about the post civil war era is quite thought provoking.”
Yoffi, Trip Advisor Reviews (February 2, 2014)

“This play works best with the quiet conversations between John and Simon, as the two men wrestle with the moral and practical quandaries of freedom. The chemistry between the actors Davenport and Mascoll is profound, and I could just watch their characters discuss stealing eggs and be enlightened about the human condition.”
Craig Idlebrook, The New England Theatre Geek (February 3, 1014)

“The great Johnny Lee Davenport manages to play Simon as a good-natured, proud and spiritual man. He comes off more like a compassionate pragmatist stuck in a bad situation, rather than a subservient Uncle Tom. Simon just wants to carry on the good traditions like his religion while leaving the bad ones behind.”
Tom Boudrot, Boston Events Insider (February 4, 2014)

“New Rep guest director Benny Sato Ambush brings as much care to Caleb, Simon and John’s concerns and fortunes as he did to the tensions and dynamics of the son of the Cape Town, South Africa, tea shop owner and his two Apartheid-oppressed black servants in the recent IRNE Award-winning (for production and direction) Gloucester Stage Company staging of the Athol Fugard’s gem ‘Master Harold’ . . . and the boys. Premiere Hub actor Johnny Lee Davenport, majestic as the older servant in Fugard’s play, brings equal nobility to the rich central role of Simon. Capturing Simon’s evolving deep ties to the DeLeons, he also demonstrates the devout older convert’s remarkable attentiveness to Judaism and the details of the Seder. His deeply resonant singing of ‘Go Down Moses’ and a heart-wrenching outburst at a climactic moment of painful clarity will linger in theatergoers’ memories with the power of a favorite holiday observance.”
—Jules Becker, Bay Windows (February 6, 2014)

“As soon as the play begins, the stage is filled with action, rather than light. A wounded solder has broken into the estate, and the only individual left in this dilapidated Southern mansion that has been looted, destroyed and abandoned is Simon (Johnny Lee Davenport), the family’s head slave. The trespasser happens to actually be one of the family’s offspring, Caleb DeLeon (Jesse Hinson,) who left home to fight for the Confederacy. Simon has raised this man since he was a boy, and now Caleb’s leg is badly wounded—gangrene has set in and the limb must be amputated.
sssssThe vividness of the experience, the description of the process, is so graphic it evokes the best-written documentation of the bloodiest war ever fought on our country’s soil. But this is, pretty much, where historical reenactment ends. The play is not a documentary, but a theatrical ceremony.
sssssThere is no chorus, but the play is filled with music: there’s Simon’s haunting rendition of the spiritual ‘Go Down, Moses’ and John’s gut-wrenching recollection of a whipping, the sounds of which are recreated through stomping his foot and clapping his hands.
sssssAs directed by Benny Sato Ambush, the action is very grand; to be fair, these are spectacular emotions the characters are feeling. But the genuine faith and devotion of the Seder scene made me long for the intimacy of the Black Box Theater and Imagining Madoff. . . . the grandeur of the setting and the epic scope of the family’s betrayals is in direct contrast with the humility of the Seder ritual. If the DeLeon house is the Vatican, the Seder is Mother Teresa.”
—Michael Cox, EDGE Boston (February 7, 2014)

“This was an unbelievably thought-provoking and well-acted play. We were reminded of man’s inhumanity in the face of adversity. The challenge of deciding who you are and what defines you. Johnny Lee Davenport was amazing as Simon. His acting is so outstanding that you feel his caring for Caleb and the pain that he has endured in his life. He demonstrates how we all need to find our joys amidst our sadness. John, the character, plays his part so well that one sympathizes with all he does that would be wrong in any other world. I would love to see this play again.”
Rose Ann Berwald, Goldstar Reviews (February 7, 2014)

“The topic of this play is unique. That alone made it worthwhile to attend. The performances of the three actors were excellent, especially the actor who played Simon.”
Karen Pike, Goldstar Reviews (February 7, 2014)

“Very moving and intense; excellent acting.”
Goldstar Member, Goldstar Reviews (February 7, 2014)

“Sometimes one good idea—and a cast to put it over—is all a new play needs. . . . the cast at the New Rep, under the quietly persuasive direction of Benny Sato Ambush, is so eloquent that we forgive the clumsier passages, and exult in the more compelling. It would be pointless to attempt to rank Davenport’s dignity against Hinson’s intensity, or Mascoll’s bitter witall are superb.”
Thomas Garvey, The Hub Review (February 11, 2014)

The Whipping Man [was] very intense. . . . The actors were first rate, and we thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Mumtosome, Trip Advisor Reviews (February 12, 2014)

“Amazing performances by all the actors in a multilayered story with unexpected turns of events.”
Goldstar Member, Goldstar Reviews (February 14, 2014)

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