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Generally Speaking

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It began with a footnote in a Lincoln biography.

Playwright Richard Strand wondered why Civil War general Benjamin Franklin Butler, an anti-abolitionist supporter, would rule that fugitive slaves should remain free – let alone entertain the thought.

Further reading didn’t provide the answers Strand sought, so he wrote Butler, a play that premiered in 2014 and runs through Feb. 7 at the Phoenix Theatre.

Writing the play was Strand’s way of creating a plausible explanation for something that seemed implausible.

In Butler the playwright doesn’t waste time getting to the action.

Seen here, Major Cary (center, played by Doug Powers) has arrived at Maj. Gen. Butler’s office to retrieve fugitive slave Shepard Mallory in Butler. - COURTESY ZACH ROSING
  • Courtesy Zach Rosing
  • Seen here, Major Cary (center, played by Doug Powers) has arrived at Maj. Gen. Butler’s office to retrieve fugitive slave Shepard Mallory in Butler.

When the play opens, it’s 1861 and Butler, who has recently been promoted to the rank of major general at Fort Monroe in Virginia, grants a meeting with Shepard Mallory, a well-spoken and demanding runaway slave looking for refuge.

Butler is ready to deny the request until he meets Mallory face-to-face.

Based on actual events, Strand used creative license to fill in the missing pieces of the story. No one really knows what was said during the conversation between the two. In fact, it's questionable whether a meeting between them ever happened.

Butler offers a fictional look at the dialogue that could have been exchanged between Butler and Mallory. It’s this kind of creative license woven with history that initially gave Stephen Hunt pause. He plays the role of Maj. Gen. Butler in the Phoenix production.

“During the very first rehearsal, I asked if the script was revising history as part of the play?” says Hunt. “Is this revising the face of slavery ... is it putting a face on it that’s real or not real? If so, it really bothered me to do that.”

What helped Hunt come to terms with Strand’s approach is that “this play takes that vacuum and fills it quite nicely,” he says.

Ultimately, it was the structure of the play and how the general fits into it that won him over. “Butler is a real human being, and that’s what I really love about this play,” says Hunt. “Three of the four characters were real human beings and you can go Google them and find all kinds of stuff about them.”

Ray Hutchins (Mallory) says his character’s willingness to be happy – at any cost – drew him to the role.

“As I read through the script, I noticed that Mallory was a person that started to commit to the goal of his own personal happiness, and he didn’t care how that looked, he just really wanted to go for it,” says Hutchins. “His situation didn’t matter to him because, in his head, it was either be happy or die miserable, and he just could not accept that."

Actor Ray Hutchins plays Shepard Mallory, a fugitive slave who seeks refuge at Fort Monroe in Virginia. -  - COURTESY ZACH ROSING
  • Courtesy Zach Rosing
  • Actor Ray Hutchins plays Shepard Mallory, a fugitive slave who seeks refuge at Fort Monroe in Virginia.

“Honestly, that resonated with me greatly, because I’ve been through that [experiencing similar feelings] in my own life, and it feels good to play a role that let’s me vent and speak about that,” Hutchins says.

For years, Hutchins says he put his dreams of making a living in the arts on hold, until he finally decided to step into his purpose.

“Six years ago, I made a goal to do a show at the Phoenix, and six years later I’m here, playing a character that has made plans to commit to his goal and not be miserable,” he says. The 29-year-old who has been in more than a dozen plays (winning two Encore Awards) makes his debut at the Phoenix Theatre with this role.

The theater describes Butler as part historical drama, part comedy, which seems an unlikely combo. Comedy and slavery don’t go hand-in-hand. And they’re not really meant to in this play.

“The subject matter is not comedic at all,” says Hunt, who has been acting at the Phoenix since 1995. “It’s about putting these pairs of people under a microscope, seeing how they interact and how comedy arises from that. It’s really about the interplay of characters.”

Hunt says his character Butler is educated to the point that he thinks he’s always right, “and there’s just a load of comedy in that type of person – even in real life.”

Hutchins believes the comedic aspects of the play are well-placed.

“The comedy doesn’t make fun of any of the seriousness of slavery or the seriousness of the Civil War, or the seriousness of the situation,” he says. “It’s more a relief part of the play (to help audiences deal with the issues).”

“Comedy helps to take some of that edge off,” adds Hunt. “It’s not a bunch of one-liners that will make your side hurt, it’s more cerebral than that.”

Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler (left) grills Lieutenant Kelly (played by Brandon Alstott). -  - COURTESY ZACH ROSING
  • Courtesy Zach Rosing
  • Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler (left) grills Lieutenant Kelly (played by Brandon Alstott).

For more than 30 years the Phoenix has presented new and contemporary works that have never been done before in Indianapolis. The plays are meant to make audiences think.

“This is one of the reasons Bryan (Fonseca, the theater’s producing director) has been so successful at the Phoenix for so long,” Hunt explains. “Theater is a great way to present and challenge ideas without hitting you in the face with it. And here (with Butler) we have another opportunity to do that.”

What should audiences take away from this play?

“Selfishly speaking, I hope it’s that no matter how dire your situation is, you can really fight to get out of it. Your situation doesn’t have to make you,” says Hutchins. “From a more psychological standpoint, I hope the play reminds people to never forget (the history of slavery). It’s OK to be reminded. It happened, so embrace what it teaches you about today.”

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