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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

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Play connects black and Jewish communities

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Philip Akin

The Whipping Man is a universal tale of loyalty, deception and deliverance, co-presented by Harold Green Jewish Theatre and Obsidian Theatre Company.

Directed by Obsidian’s artistic director Philip Akin and starring Sterling Jarvis, Brett Donahue and Thomas Olajide, The Whipping Man opens at the Studio Theatre, Toronto Centre for the Arts, on March 16 and runs until April 14.

“It is a great team of actors,” Akin says. “They are some of the hardest working and most open because I try to do some different things. The Studio is very intimate, and I think the play is going to be hugely powerful in that space. It will be fabulous.”

The story takes place over Passover in 1865, just after America’s Civil War. Jewish Confederate officer Caleb DeLeon comes home to Virginia only to find his house in ruins, his family missing and only two former slaves remain. The slaves, Simon and John, find themselves forced to take care of the badly wounded Caleb.

“It opens up this massive question about slavery and freedom,” Akin says. He points out that at the time rabbis were divided over the slavery issue.

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“In Leviticus, it says you can have bondsmen and bondsmaids. But the hook in this play is that these slaves were raised to be Jewish, and in my understanding, once you are a Jew, you are a Jew, no matter where you came from. And, if that’s the case, how can you be a slave,” he says. “So that’s the main conundrum – the cost of freedom for both groups.”

Akin believes that in any play the audience should be active participants and come away with questions. “The best thing about any play that I have ever directed is that people are discussing or disagreeing afterwards about it.

“It is not about that I want them to come away thinking thus or so, because everyone is going to bring who they are to the play, and who they are is going to resonate to the play in a particular way. And that’s going to be what they take from this and I can’t control that, and I don’t want to control that.”

Akin was born in Jamaica but is Canadian because his father and grandfather held Canadian citizenship. Akin says his family is one-third black, one-third Scottish and one-third Jewish on his mother’s side.

“The motto of Jamaica is ‘out of many, one people,’ and that is true of me and that is true of most people in the islands. There is a huge blend of who we are. In my rougher moments I say, ‘I’m black, I have a kilt and I’ve had a bris – what else do we need?’”

Akin is a founding member of Obsidian Theatre, Canada’s leading black theatre company, and has served as its artistic director since 2006. He says teaming up with the Harold Green Jewish Theatre (HGJTC) involved a little serendipity when he happen to meet HGJTC board member Michael Rubinoff who told him about the play and mentioned he also told HGJTC about it. After reading the play, both companies saw it as a perfect fit.

Akin says all the productions of the play in America that he’s aware of, have been co-productions between black and Jewish organizations. “I have always believed that when our two communities actually work together we achieved really great things and when we haven’t there have been some issues,” he says. “This is a wonderful play to build those connections back again.”

Akin’s other directing efforts include Ruined, Toronto the Good, El Paso, Intimate Apparel, Black Medea, Born Ready and Pusha Man. He’s also acted in productions of Othello and Of Mice and Men at the Stratford Festival.

In 2011, Akin received the Mallory Gilbert Leadership Award; the Bra D’Or Award from the Playwright’s Guild of Canada and was the Toronto Sun’s Performance Artist of the Year. In 2010, he received the Silver Ticket Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Arts presented by the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts. In addition, he’s the vice-president of the board for the Canadian Contemporary Dance Theatre.

For tickets to The Whipping Man, contact www.ticketmaster.ca or call 1-855-985-2787.

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