Through March 25|
BEN BUTLER Kavinoky Theatre
History often revolves around quick decisions and hasty calls.
That’s what Richard Strand’s “Ben Butler” is about, a few minutes between Union General Ben Butler (John Fredo) and Confederate Major John Cary (Tom Loughlin).
Three slaves had escaped from building revetments against Fort Monroe, a Union stronghold in Norfolk, Virginia, in the opening months of the Civil War.
Butler commands Fortress Monroe.
Those revetments were being built for the Confederate Army, made up of states which seceded from the Union and have formed the Confederacy and want the fort and its control of the great harbor.
Under the Fugitive Slave Law, the slaves were supposed to be returned to their owners.
While the encounter actually occurred in the open, with both on horseback, Strand has moved the action into Quarters One, the commandant’s home in the vast fortress.
It’s a small cast, Butler, Cary, Lieutenant Kelly (Christopher Evans), the adjutant, and Shepard Mallory (Patrick Coleman).
He’s the leader of the three slaves and makes himself obnoxious to the commandant, while providing information Butler finds enlightening.
Their encounters are often humorous, hard to believe in this tale of slavery and Civil War.
Butler won’t declare Mallory and his buddies free men because Lincoln doesn’t see slavery as the issue which precipitated the war.
You can argue that point and people have since the first artillery blasts against Fort Sumter.
Slavery became the issue.
Butler is trying to grab on to his new role as a general officer and forget his long and controversial career as a lawyer.
He actually likes Mallory, something Lt. Kelly doesn’t.
Butler has a quirk which controls the events of the play.
He doesn’t like people to demand something from him, whether Mallory or Cary.
After receiving the notice from their owner, Colonel Mallory, that Major Cary will come to retrieve the three slaves, Butler has them been locked up and put in chains.
Loughlin’s Cary isn’t on stage much but makes maximum use of his time to create this arrogant slaveholder who wants the country from which his Commonwealth of Virginia has seceded to hand over the slaves under U.S. law.
He antagonizes Butler with his arrogance and demands.
Butler makes a decision which Lincoln ultimately supports, saying they were slaves being used to build fortifications and that makes them “contraband” of war.
They will stay.
An angry Cary leaves and takes it back to the colonel.
The premise of the later parts of the show is that this story of contrabands not being returned is discussed in front of slaves who decide they want to be contraband and not slaves and they take off into the woods and Fort Monroe.
Butler allows them in.
And then, more arrive.
By the end of the war, hundreds of thousands of “contrabands” have crossed into Union lines, crippling the Confederacy’s war and agricultural efforts.
From these contrabands, thousands joined the United States Colored Troops who fought for the Union, many suffering terrible punishment and death as escaped slaves, when captured by Confederates.
Of course, the war became so topsy-turvy that some slaves actually volunteered for the Confederate Army very late in the war.
Those Black soldiers became key to late stages of the war as Union reserves of White new troops shrank.
In the end, many became the “Buffalo Soldiers” of the Old West.
All because one general decided he couldn’t send slaves back to rebels.
In a sense, this is a two-character play, Fredo’s Butler and Coleman’s Mallory, and they both have great roles and deliver really good performances, helped along by Evans’ stuffy and starched West Pointer Kelly and Loughlin’s gaudy-uniformed Cary.
Kelly Copps had fun with these costumes, on David King’s set, with Geoffrey Tocin’s effective sound.
The Civil War is filled with little-known tales, no matter how many books and movies and TV shows have been done in the century-and-a-half since Appomattox Courthouse.
The great stories have been told again and again, like the events of Gettysburg.
This story of the early days of the war and one of those pivotal moments which changed the course of war is almost unknown.
These were human beings and they are discussed in legal terms of slave law and human property and wartime.
“Ben Butler” is an amazingly well-crafted and well-structured show, telling an important story of the clash between human law and human life and war.
Director Robert Waterhouse has done a great job with the Strand script, perhaps understanding what’s going on, as an immigrant, in a way most American wouldn’t.
That’s why “Ben Butler” should be on your to-do list.
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