There is a moment in Phoenix Theatre's newest production where a character named Mallory desperately tries to explain to General Butler how everyone hates him.
The General shrugs the comment off: It's only when Mallory peels up the back of his shirt to reveal the deep scars on his back that the gravity of the situation settles, in.
"Mallory has demonstrated to Butler through the scars the suffering that no human being should have to endure," says Dale McFadden, guest director of Butler at the Phoenix Theatre.
Mallory, played by Ramon Hutchins, and General Butler, played by Stephen Hunt, are two of the main characters in the upcoming production. The play, written by Richard Strand, is set in Civil War Virginia. General Butler, a lawyer, has taken over the command of Fort Monroe, a Union outpost. While he is literally unpacking his office, he is told that several runaway slaves have arrived seeking asylum. Since there is no law that says he must grant it, the general brushes them off. Eventually Mallory, one of the hopeful asylees, is able to ask the general in person. Eventually Butler, motivated in the same manner as a politician instead of a humanitarian, decides that the slaves can be considered "contraband" and they are seized property that can be seized during the war. This legally created a haven not only for the characters in the play, but those who fled to the actual Fort Monroe of the time. New York Times Magazine credited the historical decision as the true reason why slavery crumbled around the nation.
"It's a great political discussion, and it's funny and it's a good bit of a mess" says McFadden, recounting the story. "... No one has a halo on their head in this play, but there is some hope that things can change."
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McFadden, who has been working with the Phoenix since 1989, first read the play in August of 2015.
"At first I was puzzled what the tone of it was," says McFadden. It was only after reading a review of the play's first appearance at the New Jersey Repertory Company
that the unexpected humor glistened.
"It is an unapologetic historical enhancement of how people who were not in such oppression started to realize that human beings needed the same life that they had," says McFadden.
Bryan Fonseca, the Phoenix's artistic director, was at the National New Play conference last year when he was first introduced to the script.
"It's a subject matter that you think people wouldn't be able to laugh at until that first laugh, and then it's extremely funny until it's not, until its poignant," says Fonseca.
At the time he was looking for something that related to the Black Lives Matter movement "...without doing a race play that people won't want to come to," he adds.
Butler also allows Fonseca to tie in the controversial discussions of race surrounding the continuous use of the Confederate flag by those who claim it as a misguided stake in regional pride. He went on to explain how the play opens a dialogue of how absurd it is to force anyone to represent an entire race.
"Of course you could write a play directly about what those issues are," says McFadden. "This particular play is taking the past, using it in the present as, really, a Rorschach for the audience to make their connections for what happened then and what's happening now, and how people in power ... are lead accidentally and with some force to the realization that they are truly human beings.
"I have faith that we as a people, however divided we might be, are interested by compelling history and what it has to say about us today, "says McFadden." I think this play is in that category."
If you go
When: Jan. 7 - Feb. 7
Where: Phoenix Theatre, Frank and Katrina Basile Stage, 749 N. Park Ave.