As Observed by Myra Chanin. . .
BocaStage has done it again, unearthed an intriguing, amusing play that’s a blend of comedy, history and biography and presented it with unforgettable artistry. Ben Butler by Richard Strand is based on actual people and actual events. It’s also an exercise in wordplay as Butler, formerly a criminal defense attorney with a substantial practice, attempts to resolve a delicate impasse thrust upon him by a runaway slave.
The date is April 18, 1861 – the day after Virginia voted to secede from the Union. The setting is the office of the newly commissioned Major General Benjamin Stanley Butler (Troy J. Stanley), also the newly appointed Commanding Officer of Fort Monroe, a Union fortification in Hampton Roads, VA. A bald, portly man with a chevron moustache and a Van Dyke beard, dressed resplendently in a bespoke dark blue long coat excessively embroidered with golden trim. Butler sits in a handsome office at handsome oak Sheraton desk, perusing a telegram containing The News of the Day, when Lt. Kelly (Jordan Armstrong), his adjutant, a West Point career officer attired in an ordinary unembellished uniform reports that a runaway slave who recently arrived at Fort Monroe is demanding to speak with the Fort’s Commander.
Butler is shocked, not at the presence of the runaway, but at Kelly’s use of the word demand. Butler had told Kelly in a very loud voice earlier that morning that he only responds to demands from President Lincoln, members of his Cabinet, Generals who outrank him, and oh, yes, his wife. He’s annoyed because Kelly never asked for the name of the slave, but regardless, the answer to the slave’s demand is NO!!!! and Butler dismisses Kelly.
Kelly returns to tell Butler the slave’s name is Shepard Mallory and he’s requesting a meeting with the CO to ask for sanctuary. Curious about the man, Butler has Kelly bring the runaway to see him. Shepard Mallory (Denzel McCausland) is a very good-looking, observant, articulate man, dressed in ripped rags. Butler treats Mallory with courtesy, offers him a drink of Sherry, which Mallory gulps down but doesn’t like. Butler is accustomed to dealing with men like Mallory. Mallory’s an outlaw, like most of Butler’s legal clients were.
Mallory, on his best behavior, speaks warily, trying not to make Butler hate him. Butler notices unusual things about Mallory’s elocution — like his correct use of the word convoluted, and his addressing the General by his full name, Benjamin Franklin Butler, the name stenciled onto his trunk. Butler knows that Mallory can read and that literacy is a skill that can get a slave killed. He feels for Mallory but cannot proffer him sanctuary. As a lawyer, he has sworn to uphold the laws of the USofA, which declare runaway slaves must be returned to their owner, according to constitutional law and in the Fugitive Slave Act. Mallory disputes Butler’s conclusion and declares lawyers mostly twist the law and make it say whatever they want it to say, even if what they want is the opposite of what that law is supposed to mean.
After Mallory shows Butler the scars on his back from whippings, Butler promises never to tell anyone that Mallory can read. Soon news arrives. Major Cary, an officer in Charles King Mallory’s battalion will be arriving to take the runaway slave back to his master.
Shepard plays his high card and warns Butler about the fortifications aimed at Fort Monroe, also that Major Cary heads up the Virginia artillery. He advises Butler to prevent Cary from seeing the Fort’s defenses.
How is Mallory cognizant of so much? He was one of the slaves who built fortifications for the Plantation owners and if Butler can find a way of twisting the law so Mallory and his two companions can stay, they will build fortifications for Butler better and faster than they did for the man who owned them. Mallory makes Butler an offer worthy of Don Corleone. Mallory also recognizes that he and Butler are very much the same, they both want to have the last word and will argue over who will get it.
Butler thinks over Mallory’s revelations and comes up with a brilliant and twisty solution which changed the course of the war and eventually lead Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, but I won’t reveal anything. You have to see Ben Butler to see how he twists things around to an audience’s delight.
Once again, BocaStage’s shimmering production is effervescently directed by BocaStage regular, Genie Croft, and performed by four splendid local actors. Troy J. Stanley’s Ben Butler is a roguish blend of a browbeating bully with more brains than bluff. FAU MFA Jordan Armstrong plays Butler’s West Point protocol-savvy adjutant, feeling his way his way around his new boss, wondering what the wisest way to proceed might be. Denzel McCausland, another splendid FAU grad is dazzling in every way as Shepard Mallory, the runaway slave. Jim Gibbons plays the Rebel emissary, Major Cary, as an arrogant self-indulgent elite who never had a clever thought and never chose a wise decision.
Photos by Amy Pasquantonio
BocaStage performs at The Sol Theatre, 3333 N Federal Highway, Boca Raton Fl.
Friday night 4/1/2022@8 pm,. Saturday night 4/2/2022@8 pm, Sunday matinee 4/3/2022@2 pm, Friday night 4/8/2022@8 pm, Saturday night 4/9/2022@8 pm, Sunday matinee 4/10/2022@2 pm