'The Whipping Man' opens in Sarasota

mclear@bradenton.comJanuary 2, 2014 

He was a cop on "Hill Street Blues" and a robber on "The Bob Newhart Show."

Now, Taurean Blacque is a slave at the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe in Sarasota.

He's one of the three actors in "The Whipping Man," one of the most acclaimed American plays of recent years. It opens today at WBTT.

Blacque, the deep-voiced actor who's best known for playing Neil Washington on "Hill Street Blues," was hand-picked by WBTT artistic director for the role.

"I was at the National Black Theatre Festival in North Carolina doing 'Sins of the Father' when Nate Jacobs saw me and asked me to do it," Blacque said. "I didn't know the play at all, hadn't seen it, hadn't read it. But it's a wonderful play."

Matthew Lopez, a young playwright who graduated from the University of South Florida, was unknown before "The Whipping Man" premiered in 2006, and little known until its Obie-winning New York run in 2010. It has since become one of the most often-produced plays in theaters around the country.

It's a drama about a wounded Confederate soldier, returning to his badly damaged home in the days after the Civil War. His family's Jewish, and the family's two slaves have been raised as Jews. Lincoln has just been killed. It's Passover, when Jews remember their ancestors' escape from slavery. Blacque's character, the older of the two slaves, celebrates Passover himself, seemingly blind to the irony.

All three of the characters, it turns out, hold significant secrets about the relationships among the family and its slaves.

The play has been produced dozens of times around the country in the past few years, to almost universal acclaim. Critic Christopher Isherwood called it "haunting, striking, and powerful."

It's also a chance for local audiences to see Blacque, who's best-known for TV roles, in an intimate performance.

He had been an successful New York stage actor before he was tapped for a role on "The Bob Newhart Show" as a convict who gets counseling from Newhart's character.

"That was a great experience," he said. "It was my introduction to Hollywood. Bob really loved that show so I was brought back for a spin-off where I came to his apartment and robbed him. It was one of Bob's favorite scenes."

The ground-breaking "Hill Street Blues," Blacque said, was even better

"It was a turning point in my life," he said. "The cast, the actors. It was such a great show. And we made history."

For all the television acclaim, though, Blacque said he considers himself primarily a stage actor.

"Theater's my passion," he said. "I love TV too. I love the paycheck. But actors do theater because they love the experience of it. There's no other reason to do it."

Details: Jan. 2-Feb. 2, Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, 1646 10th Way, Sarasota. Show times: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $29.50. Information: 941-366-1505, www.wbttroupe.com.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919.

Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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