The Race is Off

Two theater productions throw race relations into stark relief.

From Othello to A Raisin in the Sun, the immediacy of theater has cast a light on race relations. It’s arresting to witness such dynamics live. Last weekend, two plays opened that, on the surface, present similar themes. In Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man, a Confederate soldier and two former slaves grapple with the end of the Civil War. Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot finds half-brothers—one dark-skinned, one fair—navigating apartheid in South Africa. Both take a microcosmic approach, examining family dynamics as a mirror to the broader social climate, and both investigate ownership and freedom. But the treatment could scarcely differ more.

The Whipping Man, under Rose Riordan's gutsy direction at Portland Center Stage, traffics in direct emotion, carefully timed revelations and visceral incident, including an amputation scene. Lopez's drama takes place in Richmond, Va., just as the Civil War has ended. Carter Hudson plays a wounded Confederate soldier named Caleb, who has heaved himself to his family's gutted home. There he also finds former slaves Simon (Gavin Gregory) and the younger John (Christopher Livingston). Here's the twist: These men are Jewish, and it's Passover. Prodded by Simon, they hold a makeshift Seder in the half-demolished manor. That hulking house—with its moldering wallpaper, cockeyed banister and blasted-out windows—is captured perfectly by scenic designer Tony Cisek. Abetted by moody lighting and dramatic sound design, it makes for an intensely atmospheric experience.

Lopez's dialogue can grow didactic, and the talky style can trample subtlety. Simon is often the wise mouthpiece: "All these things you're telling me to do, by rights now you need to be asking me to do," he says to Caleb. And later, to John: "You living in this world now, not just servin' in it." But the actors give such propulsive performances that the action feels vital and urgent. As John, an intellectual jokester with angry undercurrents, Livingston astonishes. His relationship with Caleb is fraught, though  studded with brotherly mischief. In an early scene, John is triumphant yet irreverent, grinning impishly as he dangles a flask over the writhing Caleb. Throughout the play, John returns to the house with sacks slung over his shoulder like a swindler Santa Claus, bearing loot from neighboring houses. But beneath, he seethes with bitter memories. As he recounts his first experience being whipped, Livingston casts his eyes downward and crams his hands in his pockets.

The play also has humor. Some is unintentionally topical: Simon eats horse meat even though it isn't kosher (take note, IKEA shoppers). When the Seder arrives, the symbolism is heavy—Passover commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt—but wit remains. When Simon asks why Jews eat bitter herbs at the Seder, John answers dutifully, like a modern-day kid enduring the holiday rigmarole: "To remind us of the bitterness of slavery." But then he adds a weary coda: "As if we needed reminding." In reminding us that we must not forget, The Whipping Man leaves a powerful mark.

Profile Theatre's production of Blood Knot, however, does not. Some of this stems from the challenges of the script, a very different theatrical beast from The Whipping Man. Fugard's 1961 play is metaphorical, next-to-plotless and interrupted by surrealism. Under focused direction, a production can develop an internal logic, but this staging by Kevin Jones feels bloated. As the darker-skinned brother, Don Kenneth Mason is fine, but Ben Newman gives a one-note performance as his fairer-skinned sibling. They spend the entirety of the play—close to three hours—in a one-room shack, a space just as claustrophobic for the audience as for the characters. Profile's Fugard-only season has impressed so far, but its production of his breakout work—which so inflamed the apartheid government that his passport was revoked—lands with a thud. 

SEE IT: The Whipping Man is at the Gerding Theater, 128 NW 11th Ave., 445-3700. 7:30 pm Tuesdays-Sundays, 2 pm Saturdays-Sundays, noon Thursdays through March 23. $39-$65. Blood Knot is at Theater! Theatre!, 3430 SE Belmont St., 242-0080. 7:30 pm Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays through March 17. $16-$30.

Willamette Week's journalism is funded, in part, by our readers. Your help supports local, independent journalism that informs, educates, and engages our community. Become a WW supporter.