“The Whipping Man” – Black Theatre Troupe


Black Theatre Troupe, Black Theatre Troupe Performing Arts Center
Phoenix, AZ

The Black Theatre Troupe celebrated two significant events with the opening of “The Whipping Man.”  The most important is the opening of their new theater, the Black Theatre Troupe Performing Arts Center, in downtown Phoenix as they present the southwest premiere of Matthew Lopez’s New York debut play.

While the impressive facility represents the company’s first permanent home in several years, opening night glitches need to be resolved.  The stage lacks a grid and a curtain limiting what can be produced.  The aisles, while comfortably wide, can only be accessed from the sides making seating after the production begins impossible without disturbing on time audience arrivals.  Parking in front of the theater is inadequate and lacks adequate handicapped spaces.  Overflow parking is down the road in a private lot that has inadequate lighting and no security.

The play, while interesting, is overwritten and the mixed production has only one outstanding acting performance but two characterizations that aren’t sharply defined.  The production is plagued by lethargic pacing and excessive pauses between scenes that slow it to a morbid crawl.

“The Whipping Man” takes place just as the Civil War ends.  Action is in the ruins of a once grand Richmond, Virginia mansion.  The characters include Simon, a former house slave; Caleb, the son of the home’s owner; and John, another former slave.  The action focuses on the slaves’ treatment by the owner’s son, a wounded Confederate soldier.  As the discussion evolves, the tables get turned as surprising revelations occur but explaining further details would spoil the play.  Some interesting relationships between the characters emerge and the treatment of Simon’s children complicates the situation.

Unfortunately, the playwright drags out the story lessening its potential impact.  Tighter construction would increase the play’s effect.  The laggardly production presents the scenario at a dreary pace that turns the events into stupefying dullness.

Performances are mixed from Rod Ambrose’s fine Simon although his deliberately slow acting further drags the play down.  He does get the former slave’s devotion to the family until events turn his loyalty against his allegiance.  Phillip Herrington’s Caleb is unusually lethargic and lacks feeling and emotion.  DeOnte Lemons’ bland John is uninteresting.  Robyn Allen’s staging needs to correct the performance problems and give the production life.

“The Whipping Man” represents the Black Theatre Troupe’s ongoing problem of delivering less than stellar productions.  The company needs to improve its performances to present top notch productions.  “The Whipping Man” earns three stars out of five and continues through February 17 at the new theater located at 1333 East Washington Street in downtown Phoenix.  For tickets, call the the Black Theatre Troupe box office at 602-254-2151 or order tickets online at www.blacktheatretroupe.org.

Grade: C