Pacific Theatre’s publicity folks sent me some questions about the show I’m about to direct for them. The great thing about this sort of thing is that it helps me focus on the play in a different way than just visually. Hopefully, something in my replies will tempt you to come see the show.
Here’s a brief blurb about the play:
The Civil War has come to a bloody end. On the eve of Passover, a critically wounded Confederate soldier returns to his ruined home – where two family slaves wait, and the three men must sort through the sordid legacy of slavery.
Featuring Tom Pickett, Carl Kennedy, and Giovanni Mocibob
“Haunting, striking, and powerful.” New York Times
“Masterfully grapples with issues of family and freedom during an era of uncertainty and fear.” Huffington Post
STRONG LANGUAGE AND PHYSICAL TRAUMA
And here’s the Q&A:
What excites you about this story?
As Canadians we generally consider ourselves free of racism. We’re quite smug about the racial tensions that bubble up within the USA, thinking that we’ve gotten over that sort of sordid squabbling up here. But really, our form of racism is more insidious and subtle. It expresses itself through entitlement, cultural segregation and appropriation, and a laziness with regard to exploring and understanding other cultural perspectives. And I see these themes being scratched at in this story where people of two minority groups are struggling with how to deal with each other once a new regime has been announced. Through a simple story – and there is really nothing remarkable about the story at all – we’re giving a multi-faceted look at racism on both a personal and systemic level. The story is framed – both historically and ritually – within events of reconciliation; yet, there’s a tenuousness and fragility that is really quite frightening.
Slavery is often seen as a historical issue, how does this story connect to current issues?
I think slavery is really only a symptom of one of the worst of human characteristics: this tendency to separate into distinct groups and demonize those other groups; and slavery is just one step away from genocide on the demonization spectrum. The fact that some Canadians are delineated as Asian-Canadian, Afro-Canadian or Indo-Canadian and yet, for some reason, I am entitled – as a person of northern european descent – to be delineated as “Canadian”. Why are these hyphens necessary for some people and not others? Why can’t every Canadian citizen be called “Canadian”? This, in my mind, is an example of the notion that “some are more equal than others”, and it’s an issue I wrestle with myself. I think that as long as we have this notion of difference, we are still subject to sliding down that spectrum of demonization.
Another part of slavery is the issue of rights. We’re a culture that’s big on “rights”: free speech, religion, privacy, the list goes on. However, we often demand these rights at the expense of the rights of other people. We forget that with every right comes a responsibility: a responsibility to afford those same rights to all others and consider how exercising those rights affects the lives of those around us. If I have a right to carry a weapon, I have a responsibility to ensure that no-one is threatened or harmed unduly by that weapon. I have a right to express myself in any manner I desire – but I also have a responsibility to recognize the effect my words may have on how others think, feel and act. I think this is quite relevant to the here and now – especially in light of terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo and media outlets deciding whether or not to run potentially offensive cartoons. As a society, and in a world that keeps getting ‘smaller’, we’re still trying to figure out how to balance this tension of rights and responsibilities – and the characters in The Whipping Man are just starting that journey.
Tell me about the creative team – what are you looking forward to about working with this group?
Drew Facey always brings in an amazing sense of place and artistry to a production. I’ve not seen a design of his that didn’t serve the script beautifully – even when the production as a whole seems to fail, his designs succeed. Laughlin Johnston has worked deft magic with lighting and he’ll do the same with this one. I get to try out a new costume designer in Amy McDougall and that’s always a frightening and exciting prospect. Jeff Tymoschuk is a master of cinematic soundscapes and this script, with its historical setting, will give him huge scope within which to play.
What do you foresee as the biggest challenge for this play?
I think balancing the personal histories of the characters against the larger historical setting will be something that we have to be very aware of. We think we know what the story is about. It’s about slaves getting their freedom. Well, yes, but that’s merely a generality. We’ll have to be more specific than that. We have to get into what this new set of rights means to these specific people and what responsibilities are conferred to them along with those rights. If the production is to be immediate and relevant, it’s in that struggle that we need to engage the audience. Otherwise, it becomes a mere historical piece.
The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez opens February 27 2015 at Pacific Theatre. Purchase your tickets here.