Naima Dawson is a published author, Chicago playwright, and professor. Her career accomplishments cover more than 20 years in Arts Entertainment. Her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago and her Master of Education from DePaul University solidifies her ability to bridge the two worlds between Arts and Education. She is the writer and producer of Your Call! Late Night Improv & Sketch Comedy for Grown Folks, as seen in production at the Apollo Theater and The Mercury Theater.
(left to right: Greg Vinkler and Tosin Morohunfola, rear: Nate Burger in Northlight’s BUTLER. Photo by Michael Brosilow.)
Through an intricate dance of witty dialogue, Northlight Theater’s production BUTLER by Richard Strand explores one moment in history which undoubtedly can be considered the prelude to not just the Emancipation Proclamation, but it also explains how Black men both free and escaped slaves were allowed to join as soldiers of the Union during the Civil war.
In 1861, Major General Benjamin Butler, played by Greg Vinkler is faced with the moral conflict of helping three slaves seek refuge within the Union fort while trying to uphold the law of the Constitution, which explicitly states that if captured, slaves are to be returned to their rightful owner. Butler being a former lawyer finds a way to keep the slaves safe with this ludicrous idea that slaves can be confiscated, because they are considered to be contraband in the Civil War. The storyline becomes insanely hilarious from that point on, as Butler tries to convince the Confederate slave owner, Major Cary (Tim Monsion), of his unfounded amendment to the law.
We only meet one of the three slaves, Shepard Mallory played by Tosin Morohunfola, most likely because Shepard was the most literate of the three. What happens going forward is a masterfully woven comedy about slavery and a General’s radical decision that would presumably later influence President Abraham Lincoln’s freeing of all slaves.
If one is looking for a tear-jerking, fist-clenching melodrama, BUTLER will greatly disappoint. It’s a comedy that takes us through the grand art of wordplay and humor. Under the direction of Stuart Carden, BUTLER stirs up all the ugliness of America into a sensible comedy about a poignant time in history.
Even though this is a subject we wouldn’t typically find ourselves laughing about, the dialogue is ingenious and hilarious. Through a slow build, we understand the relationship that develops between fugitive slave, Shepard Mallory, and General Butler. It’s within their banter that General Butler takes great interest in the keen and often arrogant intelligence found in Shepard, who shouldn’t have all this high intellect and wit, as he’s a slave.
Shepard felt very one-dimensional at times, yet Morohunfola successfully delivers a frantic man, who forces his visibility through his offsetting audacious attitude, which tends to get him into trouble. Morohunfola is a great pairing with the skillful Greg Vinkler, who delivers a rather likable Butler. Vinkler’s strength is in his acrobatic delivery of wit. He brings an appropriate amount of lightness without diminishing the central focus. However, I’m almost certain that the real life General Butler was not as likable as Vinkler’s portrayal. In fact, history tells us General Butler was not at all well-liked by his peers and rather beastly in his unorthodox leadership – but, this is a comedy.
I have to snap my fingers for the wild and extravagant Major Cary of the Confederate Army played by Tim Monsion, who served us every bit of the pretentious flare of the Confederate south, while General Butler’s Lieutenant Kelly played by Nate Burger effortlessly kept us laughing as he danced in and out of the banter between all of the characters.
If wanting to learn and laugh through a dark time in history and not feel awkward about doing so, see BUTLER. I cannot think of a better way to tell the layered and most sensitive story of how slaves escaped the South in search of freedom in the North with the Union Blue during the Civil War.
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