Review: “The Whipping Man” at Penumbra

It’s tempting sometimes to think of the plays at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul as being those of August Wilson and those of everyone else, Wilson being both a towering, canonical figure and an anchor of the theater’s repertory. But that isn’t for lack of trying on the part of contemporary playwrights who, like Wilson, were fortunate enough to find their way to Lou Bellamy. And The Whipping Man, running for one more week only (through March 8) at the premier African-American theater, succeeds with an uncanny maturity in using sharply drawn characters and rich metaphor to wrestle Wilson-like with epic American issues of race, religion, and responsibility.

Set at the end of the Civil War, playwright Matthew Lopez leaps with a gripping suspense headlong into the unsettling relationship between white Southerners and the newly freed slaves, neither group quite knowing how to respond to each other anymore. It’s a fascinating historical period that translates into universal themes of what it means to be free and the responsibility we do or don’t have for each other. And if the play bites off a little more than it can chew in its final minutes, the ambition is forgivable–someone must succeed Wilson; it might as well be Lopez.