During a break from rehearsals last week, The Burg sat down with Archer and the cast to discuss the play, its themes and the whipping man himself.
This interview has been condensed and edited for space.
The Burg: What can you tell us about the play?
Director Mace Archer:"... In some ways, it's a family drama. Because these people all grew up together. Although two of them were owned and [were] servants, they still have this deep history that feels as much like family as you can have when you own people."
Quickly, the conversation turns to the idea of Jewish slave owners.
Archer: "That's a fascinating element to the play and, actually, I think that's ultimately what makes it special. You can tell this story about the end of the war, but I don't think a lot of us realize that there were these Jewish slave owners in the South. And certainly, they were a minority, but this isn't the only family, Jewish family, owning slaves. There's a great faith in the play, and there are Jewish rituals in the play. The interesting part of it is slave owners would have just passed on their religious beliefs to their slaves."
The Burg: This takes place over Passover. How much did that affect the story?
Archer: "Quite a lot because the Passover story, of course, is the celebration...of the Jewish people... having been freed from the Pharaoh. So the play is making a direct correlation between the freeing of the slaves in Egypt and the freeing of the American slaves. These black men, who are practicing Jews, are acknowledging that and they feel more incorporated into the ritual. They identify with that, that remembrance, in a way they never could before. They used to celebrate it in the house, but when they talk about the freeing of the slaves in ancient times, I'm sure that landed differently than it does today, on the day they celebrate it and they're free."
Each of the actors discusses their characters at length (which has been eliminated here to avoid spoilers). Eventually, the conversation moves to the play's complex themes: slavery, faith, honesty and family.
Jonathan West (Simon, one of the two slaves): "All the tension boils down to the secrets and why they're kept and then we see why people have abandoned certain principles and why people stick to their guns because of their faith throughout the piece."
Audrey Tchoukoua (John, one of the two slaves): "As Mace said, this is definitely a family piece. It's so easy to walk into a slave tale thinking, 'Oh yeah, I'm in for the discord, for the distance between slaver and slave.' But by the end of the play you actually see that these folks have way more in common...because of the circumstances of their upbringing. They basically lived together, and it wasn't like a huge plantation with acres and acres of land. It was just this house and maybe the yard and the cabin. That's it, that's the family, so the integration was much, much easier between slave and slaver."
Daniel Bush (Caleb, the wounded soldier): "I agree that honesty is a huge thing and I also think it discusses a lot about Southern family dynamics. How there's so much swept under the rug and pretty faces are put on.... It's a play of juxtapositions: the rich or poor, the enslaved or free."
Archer: "It sort of is. [Simon] has that wonderful thematic statement about, 'What are y'all slaves to? Even though you're all free now, you're still slaves.'"
Bush: "It's also a play about how people respond in the wake of huge events. How people respond when their lives are shaken up. People go back to... a survival instinct that kicks in."
T he Burg: I want to go back to juxtapositions, since you've all agreed it's a play about juxtapositions.
Bush (Caleb): "It's definitely a play about juxtapositions and how people — not adjust to those juxtapositions, because I don't think they're aware."
Archer: "But the author's certainly doing it. He's juxtaposing faith against lack of faith. One of the great ironies in the play is these two black men are practicing, and Caleb comes in and basically says he no longer believes because of what he's seen. There's age, youth versus age and perspective, in this story. And the big one that you said, Caleb, is being free versus enslaved, coming to realize they're all free, but they might be more slaves than they had been before because of the choices they made."
The Burg: What is the line about slavery?
West (Simon):"'There's more than one way a man can be a slave.'"
The Burg: So, what are your characters slaves to although they are now all free men?
Tchoukoua (John): "The drinking for John, he's a slave to the bottle. For almost the entirety of the show, he has a bottle with him onstage. He can't let go of that."
Bush (Caleb): "I think Caleb's a slave to his past."
West (Simon): "I don't want to cop out of this one, but it almost feels like Simon embodies freedom in a sense. If I absolutely had to give an answer, his faith because it's rock solid throughout."
The Burg: But you could argue that clinging so close to something is being a slave to it.
West (Simon): "Exactly. Because he gets blindsided by things."
The conversation then moves to the state of the country today.
Archer: "This did not happen recently — this separation of cultures in America. Audrey and I were talking when I first cast him, like, I see this play and this isn't where it started, but I can draw the lines from the action of this play to Black Lives Matter. It's not that when we ended the Civil War and slaves were freed that we had any systems in place