Austin Entertainment Weekly was so impressed with the work of City Theatre and Actor Robert Pellette, that we took some time to chat with Robert about his experiences in preparing for a role that is rooted in history yet is nearly un-thought of.
AEW: The subject matter of The Whipping Man is intriguing yet not entirely out of our normal lives, what did you draw on from your life and history to help Simon come to better life?
Robert: I didn’t have a lot to draw from other than looking at the information and considering how I would react to a situation where my family was sold without my knowledge and after all we had done for the family as well as how much we felt like a part of the family. How would I react to a situation where it is made brutally clear that what I initially believed about my family was horribly wrong. That was my focus. To me I truly believed that Caleb and John were my boys and I was a father figure to them. I also believed that Mr. Deleon was a man I respected and trusted as a friend and partner. That makes the betrayal at the end all the more painful. Especially knowing that Mr. Deleon brought his own child (John).
AEW: How has being a part of this show effected your own personal faith?
Robert: It has given me a stronger sense of my Christianity. I never had to defend my faith but I did have to understand better what my beliefs were in order to jump into Simon’s skin. I truly had to research this role which for me came from an old testament perspective. I really had to get to know more about Jewish culture and practices. I also had to overcome my surprise at the content, a Jewish slaveholder. It equaled my surprise that there were Black slaveholders as well. I had to understand that and try to understand how one could justify the practice even though past history suggests that this should never happen?.
AEW: Had you ever had any interaction with Judaism before?
Robert: My Church (David Chapel) has shared with Jewish congregations in the past. I have found the interaction to be warm and enlightening for both congregations. I wish we could do more of that. I believe that we have so much in common that we should try to be more like family than just acquaintances. You know like family you see during special occasions as opposed to the family you see all the time. They aren’t perfect and may get on your nerves but they are your family and nothing will change that. We need to try harder to be family.
AEW: What was the most difficult part of creating Simon?
Robert: Understanding and respecting the man. I could understand how to portray a slave but how do you portray a man who has deep principals, convictions and beliefs, loves family and is so willing to help others; oh and by the way he is also a slave who has been beaten severely. How does Simon tuck all that away and still be the man he is? A man of faith and dignity. I am still answering that question for myself.
AEW: Your Hebrew sounded very sincere, how much time did you spend working on that?
Robert: I worked every day since the beginning of the creative process. I did not get it until I could understand for myself what the words meant. I also used music to reinforce the words. The “4 questions” I used a song that children listen to and the rhythm of the music and the words helped me to better understand what I was saying. As a minister in the Baptist faith it is my goal to one day go to seminary. I now understand why my peers say they had such a difficult time with Hebrew. It is a beautiful language though.
AEW: What was the most rewarding part of being in this show?
Robert: The interaction with the cast and crew. I have not worked with a crew that is more professional and on point than this group of folks. I truly had to play catch up to stay with them during preparation. I learned a lot from them that I can and will apply to future performances. I also learned a lot about myself and what I believe.
AEW: What do you hope your audience leaves thinking and feeling?
Robert: My prayer for the audience is that they leave the production thinking about the role slavery had in our American culture and the consequences of that. We must not forget that all that we are today and all that we struggle with is due to our history and a large part of our history is slavery.