Today, social injustice is at the forefront in the minds of Americans, and Richard Strand’s Butler provides insight into the beginning of post-slavery discrimination. Two months after the attack on Fort Sumter, Major General Benjamin Butler (Ames Adamson) at Virginia’s Fort Monroe receives word from Lieutenant Kelly (Benjamin Sterling), that “there is a Negro slave outside who is demanding to speak with him”. When hearing out the slave’s case, Butler is forced to make a controversial decision that could sully the Union’s wartime reputation. The witty dialogue forms the foundation for the relationships, and makes for a compelling way to trace history, although it stops short of deep emotional investment.
In their meeting, John G. Williams (playing the runaway slave Shepard Mallory) and Adamson deliver an incredible amount of subtlety and just the right kind of tension that build toward the act’s exciting conclusion. After challenging Butler’s beliefs, Mallory points out that he and Butler are not only very much alike, but that he actually likes him. The ensuing conflict challenges our assumptions of these two men. Mallory is not as submissive as we might think, and Butler is not as unforgiving or relentless. “You are an arrogant oddity”, Butler snaps. “So are you”, responds Mallory, “And I hope you know that when I say that, I mean no offense.” Mallory doesn’t confront Butler on what sets them apart, but what makes them alike. The play’s climax seems to arrive in this most human and revealing moment, but the second act ventures into policy talk and legal chatter.
Adamson has skillfully created a character capable of grand arrogance as well as justice, but one may be disappointed to find that the character of Butler ends up performing not by what is sound, but by what is politically resonant. Truthfully, important decisions are often executed this way, so it can be argued that the playwright does his job well.
The play’s finale leaves Mallory wondering if he is a free man, or if he is just more free than he was before. In the latter situation, he is called what Butler cannot bear to hear: contraband, or escaped slaves who were given permission to join the Union army. It’s the best that Mallory can hope for, but what Butler cannot admit, since it may define him as a slave owner. The play falls short of delivering a profound message on the beginning of systemic racism, but nevertheless upholds the truth of what occurred after most people assumed that slaves were free to walk after escaping.
Audiences are allowed to observe Jessica L. Park’s superb set design upon entering the space. The extensive detail in the various crates and boxes (Butler has only just arrived) and its used about indispensable books and maps and telegrams ground the audience in a distinct time in the Civil War, when it had only just begun. The design works wonderfully with the script and story, serving to transport audience without letting them lose sight of the characters’ personalities.
The play paints a complex picture of the financial and political price of doing what is right, while creating characters that are quite funny and relatable. A lack of detail on the characters’ pasts or emotional stakes hinders deeper resonance with their stories, and the actors are not given many chances to be vulnerable with each other. Those seeking illumination of social justice may still walk away with a deeper knowledge of what society is up against: a system that can always advance further from its beginnings, but will always be rooted in injustice.