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'The Whipping Man' Is Emblematic Of Curious' Approach To Theater

On the heels of the 150th anniversary of the emancipation proclamation, Curious Theatre Company has mounted The Whipping Man, a play that looks at the painful legacy of slavery in post-Civil War Richmond, Va.

“It just asks such profound questions about the painful legacy of slavery, and the challenges of new-found freedom and the historical parallels between what happened to the Jewish race as well as to the African-American race in their vastly different historical experiences,” said Curious Theatre Company Producing Artistic Director Chip Walton.

The play, co-directed by Walton, unfolds as a Jewish Confederate soldier returns to his now war-addled plantation to find two of his former slaves struggling to survive there.

“I read this play the first time and I never had any idea about this historical fact: which was that there was a large concentration of Jewish slave owners in Richmond, Va. during the Civil War,” said Walton. Upon finishing the play Walton thought he couldn't "imagine that I’m the only one that doesn’t know about this.”

With that he decided the company, which mounts as many as five plays a season, would produce it.

Founded in 1997, Curious is the second largest professional theater company in Denver. Fundamental to the plays the company selects is the “need to be moved intellectually and not just emotionally, provoked as well as entertained.” Walton explains that he sees Curious as both an incubator and an innovator.

Interview highlights:

With entertainment often synonymous with ‘overly simplistic,’ how do you define the word?

“To me the way I kind of differentiate the two is entertainment to me is about escaping. And we all need to escape from time to time. What we want to do, is, is, rather than having a traditional theatrical experience where you go into the theater. You see a play when it’s over the curtain comes down, you walk out and you return to your real world. We want our work to go with you when you go into the real world. And so it’s kind of the opposite of escaping it is actually immersing yourself through the art of theater in the contemporary world around you and all of the issues that it has.”

What should art do?

“I believe that art needs to be able to clearly interact with the world, the contemporary world in which it lives. And that doesn’t mean that it needs to be a contemporary play, you can mount a Shakespeare production that has incredible contemporary resonance. But for me personally, it has got to make me think about something in an a new or a different way and that is what constitutes great art in my opinion.”

Now that Curious Theatre Company is 16-years-old, where do you see it in the next 5-to-10 years?

“We want one of our Curious New Voices graduates [a program for 15-to-21-year-old playwrights] to write a Pulitzer Prize winning play and to have it produced at Curious. So, I mean that is kind of one of those big, crazy, audacious ideas. But hopefully one day that might just happen.”

Arts District is a collaboration of KUNC, RMPBS, and KUVO.

A native of Stamford, VT, I call(ed) the Berkshires of western Massachusetts my home. The Berkshires are a culturally rich area -- I’m talking pass the butter and heavy cream -- rich.
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