‘Ben Butler’ Spotlights Key Moment

In a sliver of time between the first shot fired at Fort Sumter in April 1861, and the first full-scale Civil War battle at Bull Run in July 1861, Union General Benjamin Butler, an attorney, was faced with a dilemma. Three escaped slaves had arrived at Fort Monroe in Virginia, pleading for sanctuary. By law, their Virginian owners were entitled to get them back … But Butler couldn’t bring himself to return them.

To learn the creative solution he came up with, you’ll have to attend “Ben Butler,” presented by Artists Ensemble Theater (AET) March 24-April 3. The witty, often-humorous play is based on real events and people. Butler’s clever legal solution set into motion a chain of ideas that helped President Abraham Lincoln to pronounce the Emancipation Proclamation two years later.

“This is a piece of history that somehow got lost in the shuffle,” says Richard Raether, AET artistic director. “This took place in a moment before the war really got started, but everyone knew it was about to start. The Virginia legislature voted to secede from the Union on May 22, 1861. The next day, these three slaves made their way to Fort Monroe to ask for sanctuary.”

Butler was legally obligated by the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act to regard the slaves as stolen property.

“He’s asking himself, ‘How do I solve this problem without ruining my future political career?’” says Raether. Ultimately, Lincoln and his cabinet not only agreed with Butler’s solution but also built upon it for their own course of action.

AET will offer four Talk Back sessions for those who wish to stay after the play and discuss the historic subject matter. They’ll be after the 4 p.m. Sat., March 26 and 2 p.m. Sun. March 27 performances and after the Thurs. March 31 and 4 p.m. Sat. April 2 performances.

Before his experience at Fort Monroe, Butler was an ambitious, working-class trial attorney from Massachusetts whose hopes to attend West Point had been dashed. Early in the Civil War he earned the nickname “Beast Butler” when he oversaw New Orleans with an iron fist and rationed the dwindling food supply equally among black and white, rich and poor citizens.

Butler’s colorful, hot-tempered personality gave playwright Richard Strand plenty to work with when writing humorous banter between Butler and three other characters: Shepard Mallory, the slave representing the three run-aways; pompous Confederate Major Carey, who demands the return of the slaves; and Union Lt. Kelly, a target of Butler’s bullying.

“I fell in love with this play when I first read it, but we couldn’t get it because they were trying to get the original production onto Broadway, and then COVID-19 hit,” says Raether. “So we’re really happy to be able to present it now.”

The four-person cast features local actor Russell Konstans in the title role; Dereis Lambert, a Rockford University graduate from St. Louis as Shepard Mallory; and local actors John Chase and Ian Garthwaite as Major Carey and Lt. Kelly.

“Ben Butler” is the second AET production staged since the pandemic shut down its live theater for 18 months. During the shutdown, Raether’s team produced “Mysterious Journey,” a podcast of 30 short plays, each one 12 to 15 minutes long, adapted from works by Ray Bradbury, H.G. Wells, Agatha Christie and others. Listen to them, free, from the AET website, or download them on your preferred podcast provider.

“Our podcast has been tremendously popular,” Raether says. “We’ve reached 7,411 downloads – in 51 different countries. That’s certainly quite a feat and a testament to the appreciation of AET’s talented actors and staff.”

Next up on the live stage at AET will be “Murder on the Air,” a comedy about a troubled 1938 radio station where the leading lady has been murdered – or not. It opens May 12.

For the “Ben Butler” production, audience members are asked to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination and to wear masks.

“At least for now, we continue to be cautious,” says Raether. “We’re in a confined indoor space and our actors don’t have the option of wearing masks for their protection.”

AET is an Equity professional theater founded in 2004, under the leadership of Raether. It prides itself on producing play titles that may not be familiar, including world premieres.

AET’s live productions are performed at Clark Arts Center on the campus of Rockford University, 5050 E. State St. Learn more or buy tickets online at artistsensemble.org or by calling the box office at (815) 394-5004 Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The box office is also open one hour before performances. ❚