Thursday, April 11, 2019

On Civil War and Civil Discourse: A Reflection on BEN BUTLER

by Robert S. Smith

Despite the Civil War ending over 150 years ago with a Union victory, events in Charlottesville, VA and debates over Confederate statues affirm that indeed the cultural wars spawned from the conflict remain with us today. BEN BUTLER provides a timely, historically significant drama that echoes the persistence of what W.E.B. DuBois coined, “...the problem of the color-line...” While this play captures the set of negotiations that informed the decision that ultimately secured a Union victory – that is, welcoming black people into the war effort so they too could fight to end slavery - the themes of the play ask critical questions about race and race relations in this country.
African Americans have provided valiant contributions to every military conflict that earmarks United States nationhood. From the Revolutionary War forward, Black people have fought and died for a country that, from its inception codified race-based slavery, later recognized Jim Crow segregation, and still fails to resolve racial inequalities in many arenas. From the Colonial Era through the Civil War, the impetus to fight was always freedom and emancipation. After the abolition of slavery, African American participation in military conflicts hinged on the belief that fighting for one’s country would lead to socio-political and socio-economic equality. While many have documented and heralded these patriotic feats and acts of heroism, public awareness of these contributions remains desperately low. The Civil War, however, was a particularly important fight given what was at stake. Despite the incessant denials of Union leaders, led by President Lincoln, African Americans knew the Civil War was a fight over slavery and therefore over their status as people. BEN BUTLER provides a glimpse into the decision that ultimately gave the Union army its greatest weapons; 4 million people who had intimate knowledge of the enemy, and a tireless commitment to throw off the shackles of slavery for good. This exchange between Shepard Mallory and General Butler highlights the historic moment:

MALLORY. General, all I’m saying is that we’ve been trained to build fortifications. We can do that facing north or we can do that facing south. The uniform and the gun and standing alongside your troops, well, that part is up to you.
BUTLER. You are delusional. Do you know that?
MALLORY. We can stay here and help to kill Virginians or you can send us back where we will help to kill you. We want to stay here and help you kill Virginians. That doesn’t seem too delusional to me. That’s just good sense.

Prior to the full welcoming of African Americans into the war effort in 1863, a Union victory remained elusive. The addition of African American servicemen, and Black women in various roles, eventually helped secure a Union victory.

But wartime participation was never a guarantee of full citizenship, especially during the Civil War. In fact, in 1861 African American status before the law was dictated by the pernicious Dredd Scott decision in which it was determined that black people were not and never had been considered citizens of the United States. Contrary to collective imaginings about enslaved people, they were certainly aware of these legal developments and understood that the ending of slavery necessarily included citizenship. Much like the War for Independence, or even WWII as a war against fascism, wartime service was a direct indication of one’s commitment to the nation and therefore ought to include fundamental rights. BEN BUTLER recognizes the ways African Americans navigated the Civil War with an eye on the prize of full citizenship, which to them was synonymous with freedom.

MALLORY. So, I am not a slave and I’m not a free man….What should I say I am?
BUTLER. Why do you have to say you are anything? I don’t walk around telling people I’m a Presbyterian. Just keep your mouth shut.
MALLORY. Yes, sir. I will do that, sir. And thank you, sir.
BUTLER. “Thank you”? For what?
MALLORY. Thank you for, well, for interpreting the law and applying it in such a good way to this particular situation. Thank you, sir.
BUTLER. You really have nothing to thank me for. Your situation is not improved over what it was when you were at Sewell’s Point.
MALLORY. Maybe things aren’t a lot different than they were. But they’re a little different. Just a little. Just a little bit better. When you are counting on favors from white men, I’ve learned not to expect too much.

This exchange also reminds us of the tension between a people daring to be free citizens, and another people who cannot imagine them free, nor as equals before the law. One of the core challenges presented by race and racism rests in the negotiation around Black identity. And it is in this nexus between race and identity where W.E.B. DuBois’ classic work remains so poignant. The legendary scholar wrote, “...the Negro is...born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, - a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world....One ever feels his two- ness, - and American, a Negro: two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body....” This “double-consciousness” where Black people traverse two worlds, one as Black Americans, the other as Black people who live in America, has been protective and made space for revolutionary undertakings. It is witnessed in the performative acquiescence that kept slave owners unaware of slave resistance and revolts; in the formation of Black institutions that softened the blow of Jim Crow and also served as anchors during the Civil Rights Movement; and even in the cultural productivity that hid the nuances woven into Negro spirituals, or in the brash, social commentary of hip hop lyricism. Throughout the play, Mallory has to craftily mask his revolutionary self to keep Butler at ease. The fugitive slave had learned this performance throughout his life as a bondsman. Yet, despite having to perform he nonetheless manufactured a reservoir of human dignity. This nuance is captured here by legendary author Ralph Ellison in his haunting work Invisible Man, “I am not complaining, nor am I protesting either. It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves.” A similar commentary is found in this exchange between Butler and Mallory:

BUTLER. Mr. Mallory, may I ask you a question?
MALLORY. You’re the general. Seems to me you can do pretty much anything you want. Isn’t that the way it works?
BUTLER. Most of the time.
MALLORY. So ask me.
BUTLER. Are all Negroes like you?
MALLORY. (Takes a moment to consider how he should answer.) Yes, sir. Every one of us is exactly the same. I’m glad you noticed that.
BUTLER. You are making sport of me.
MALLORY. No, sir. I’m just letting you know that once you’ve met one Negro, there is really no point in meeting another one. Don’t even waste your time.

BEN BUTLER uses history to force us to consider our nation’s past, and how its remnants shape our present. It revisits the Civil War, when the nation was nearly torn asunder, and in doing so reminds us of the toll paid along the paths of liberty and democracy. It dares us to remember that African American contributions were central to winning the Civil War, out of which the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were born. It requires us to consider the meanings and preservation of identity in the face of daunting attacks on one’s true self. And in our city, like many other cities across this nation, BEN BUTLER dares communities to embrace the distinct wounds that are the progeny of our nation’s failings with racial equality.

Robert S. Smith is the director of the Center for Urban Research, Teaching & Outreach at Marquette University.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Embracing Uncertainty: BEN BUTLER in Rehearsal

by Mike Fischer

“There is a law. The law is clear. Fugitive slaves must be returned to their owners.”

So says General Benjamin Franklin Butler to runaway Virginian slave Shepard Mallory. Mallory is seeking refuge in the Union fort Butler commands in the heart of Virginia. Less than 24 hours earlier, Virginia had formally seceded from the United States. 

As playwright Richard Strand suggests in his play BEN BUTLER, things aren’t nearly as “clear” for Butler as he’d initially imagined. Butler may later say to Mallory that “everything is fine like it is.” But throughout Strand’s play, both the law and life itself prove otherwise, springing surprises that will forever alter the script Butler inherited – while making him a pivotal player during one of the most significant dramas in all of American history.  

With a hefty assist from Mallory, both Butler and his adjutant – Lieutenant Kelly – eventually open their hearts to the prospect that they might play their scenes in that history differently. Strand approached his play with a similarly open mind. “It is hard for me in retrospect,” he said during a March 2016 interview in American Theatre magazine, “to be sure what I had in mind when I wrote the play.”

For trained lawyers like Butler, soldiers like Kelly – and, yes, theatre artists like Strand – moving forward often involves summoning the courage to be uncertain or even lost. Straying from the path opens one to new ways of seeing. It frees the mind of the rituals and conventions that lead us to trace increasingly narrow circles. And it’s integral to how the phenomenally talented Michael Cotey approaches directing, as he’s making clear once again in directing Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of BEN BUTLER.

Multiple Choice(s) . . .

I spent time with Michael and his cast during the second week of BUTLER rehearsals. 

Michael Cotey (left) and the cast of BEN BUTLER:
Marques Causey, Drew Brhel, Chase Stoeger,
and David Sapiro.
The cast’s initial three days of invaluable table work – during which they’d explored the historical background to Strand’s play, as well as what makes their respective characters tick – were now behind them. Full runs of the play – during which the cast starts from the top of the show and works all the way through to the end – were still ahead of them. 

The rehearsals I attended occupied that unsettling but also exciting middle period during which actors were first on their feet, immersing themselves fully in each scene while playing with everything from where they moved to when and how Mallory nudged Butler and Kelly toward a moral awakening. 

Does that awakening happen for both men all at once, like an epiphany? Or did they – like most of us whose nagging conscience natters away at us even as we stubbornly continue to sleepwalk – gradually stumble toward a new dawn?

In challenging his actors to answer such questions, Michael urged them to exercise what Keats once referred to as “negative capability”: opening their minds to the many ways one might play a scene, without prematurely feeling compelled to choose one of them. Actors understandably want to lock down how long they hold a beat, how to inflect a line, and when to move in on a scenic partner; at some point they must do these things so that a production can cohere. 

But just over one week into the rehearsal process, Michael was in no rush for his actors to get there. Doing so risked overlooking possible solutions to a scenic problem – just as Butler risked missing a legal and practical solution to the dilemma posed by runaway slaves if he assumed he already knew all the answers. 

Butler, like the actors embodying this story, needed to take time to ask questions. Was he just going to interpret history? Or would he be an agent who might change it? 

. . . And Alternative Histories

During the two full days I watched rehearsal, Michael repeatedly sidestepped his four actors’ attempts to pin down how they should play a particular moment. 

“Just try something,” he said to them, more than once. Pick a place to stand or move, he’d suggest, without specifying the specific line where it should happen. He and his cast played with adding comic bits – in a script that includes a generous helping of humor – which he freely admitted he might later take out. Michael encouraged the cast to use as much of the stage as possible, while conscious that at some point they’d need to make definitive choices involving direction and space.  

“Everyone right now should be trying all the choices that come to them and seeing how they play out,” Michael said to me during a pre-rehearsal chat in MCT’s conference room. 

“Actors sometimes stop themselves midstream and then back up because they’re afraid of making the wrong choice and are trying too early to make the right one,” Michael continued. “I want actors right now to be making choices that may feel wrong, but that then cascade into other choices we might have otherwise never known are possible. And even if one makes a choice that ultimately doesn’t make sense, it can help us figure out what the right choice is.”

Michael emphasized that as a director, he himself regularly makes midstream adjustments, as he tries to practice what he preaches to his actors: remaining open to the hidden possibilities within a script. A moment. A performance. A life.

“You think you know what you want, but then you see your actors rehearsing the play and you learn more about what the play is,” he said. “You’re also learning how the actors in your cast work, and what’s the best way to speak with each of them about what you see. 

“I often feel full of BS in the early stages of rehearsal, because I know I’ll adjust what I’m saying and how we’ll proceed, based on things I see in the room. That’s why, in the first few weeks of rehearsal, I don’t like giving my cast an ultimate destination or saying ‘this is what you’ve got to do.’ I want them to figure some of that out for themselves. I want us to figure that out together.”

Much as Butler does, with the help of Shepard Mallory and Lieutenant Kelly. 

For what’s true in Michael’s rehearsal room is also true of the characters these actors play in BUTLER: By recognizing that history is contingent and messy rather than preordained, we can better appreciate and more fully inhabit each minute of the present, while leaving ourselves available to the full potential of the future. 

“So many possibilities,” George says at the end of Sondheim’s SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE. For “every second of time,” as Walter Benjamin once wrote, could be “the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.” One just need open’s one eyes. And see.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

MCT Board Member Profile: La Toya Sykes

by Max Seigle


I was born in Chicago, then moved to Mendenhall, Mississippi and came to Milwaukee when I was in 6th grade and have never left. My family lived in the Harambee, Franklin Heights and Washington Park neighborhoods and I graduated from Washington High School. From there, I enlisted in the Army and served my tour based in Hanau, Germany. I served as an equipment parts and records specialist, and had to make sure all the weapons had ammunition and computer systems were functioning properly. 

La Toya Sykes with students from Our Next Generation
I returned to Milwaukee and began my higher education receiving an associate’s degree in liberal arts and sciences from Milwaukee Area Technical College. I went on to Concordia University to earn a bachelor’s degree in management and communications. I completed a master’s degree program at Springfield College with a major in human services and minor in community psychology. 


I learned about MCT from current board member Mickey Ripp. In collaboration with my work at Our Next Generation in Milwaukee, Mickey invited a group of Our Next Generation students to attend an MCT show and expose them to a part of the city’s culture they had never experienced before. The show was LOBBY HERO and the students loved it! Afterwards, they were treated to a talkback program with the actors and production staff. It was such a positive and amazing experience that I felt I had to do some work with MCT and that was part of the reason why I joined the board.

The other part was artistic director Michael Wright and managing director Kirsten Finn. They are so open, honest and transparent — you can ask them anything. They are also really good at articulating what a show is about in “real world” terms and selling their product to diverse audiences.


I hope to bring a more diverse population of theatregoers to MCT. I work in a part of Milwaukee where families often budget more to go to the movies and not the theatre because they think it’s too expensive. I want to let them know that seeing a play can be affordable and you won’t “break the bank.” There are so many things that companies, like MCT, do to bring in patrons, like “pay what you can” nights and a variety of subscription packages at different rates. I want my community to become season ticket holders — we just have to get the message to the masses!


So far, my favorite play has been SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE CASE OF THE JERSEY LILY. It was very entertaining and had a lot more laughs than I anticipated. I also really enjoyed the pace of the production. I brought some of my students from Our Next Generation (third to seventh-graders) and the play kept them engaged the whole time! When we were on the bus getting ready to leave, one of the actors from the show was heading out and came on board to say hi and the kids thought that was so cool! It was the icing on the cake for that visit!

Students from Our Next Generation after a matinee performance of

Since 2014, I have served as the President and CEO of Our Next Generation (ONG) in Milwaukee. It’s a nonprofit youth organization with after-school programming during the school year and camp in summer time.

We offer Homework Club which is ONG’s oldest and most time-tested method of academic intervention and relationship building.  Our award-winning Outbound Learning Program combines the academic support and one-on-one mentoring of Homework Club with opportunities to expand students' horizons beyond their own neighborhood.  We bus students to participating corporate and community partner sites, where they meet employee and community member volunteers. This gives students the opportunity to see the possibilities!

We also offer art and literacy programming that most students don’t always get in school anymore. When they came to MCT, they found out that the theatre is a rich space with so many roles to pursue — actors, writers, production staff, administration and more. Over the course of the year, we touch about 1,000 youth and their families. One of the things I love about the opportunity to lead this organization is that, often times, the children are introducing their families to something new and positive in the community based on their experiences at Our Next Generation. 

Before Our Next Generation, I worked for the YMCA of the USA. I ran a college access program in 40 states and created cohorts of professionals to come together to help students find pathways to higher education.


I love food! I like to go out and try different restaurants and cuisines around Milwaukee.

I love to travel, too. Over the last few years, I’ve been afforded the opportunity to do more travel and visit new places in the world. Last year, I traveled to cities in 10 countries, including Hong Kong in China, Thailand, Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, and Israel. Thailand was probably one of my favorites — the food was great and the people were really friendly and welcoming. When I was there, I had a chance to experience some of the communities more intimately and see how the natives live and eat and just get a whole different level of appreciation there. I love sharing my travel experiences with family and friends and introducing them to parts of the world they’ve never been to. I want to show them that if you work hard, you can play hard, too!


I love Mason Street Grill downtown, that’s one of my favorite spots. Emperor of China on Brady Street has really good Chinese food. Five O’Clock Steak House is my favorite place to get a steak in town and they make fantastic homemade desserts. They are not only “bananas” with the steak but “bananas” with the dessert, too!


I like taking getaways to Wausau. The city has a nice small-town feel with great food and a great space for “R and R.” You can really clear your mind for the road ahead.

I really like the Fifth Ward area in Milwaukee. It’s wonderful to see how the neighborhood is changing with new restaurants and revitalized spaces.

I’m a big sports fan and I’m excited about the new Fiserv Forum. I love living in a city where we have so many professional sports and the level of access is really good to get tickets.

I’ve really grown to enjoy what Milwaukee has to offer, and it’s even better now as an adult being able to sprinkle in different entertainment options, like shows at MCT.


I serve as Vice President of the Zonta Foundation Board, an entity that exists to raise and disburse funds to organizations who share our mission of empowering women and girls through service and advocacy. I also serve on the President’s Advisory Board at Carroll University.  I am a member of African American Ladies Empowered to Grow Opportunities (A-LEGO) and the Milwaukee – WI Chapter of The Links, Incorporated.


I would tell people first that MCT is just a darling place to be. There is not a bad seat in the house.

You don’t have to dress up, you can just come as you are and you’ll find the staff is very friendly.

The plays are amazing. These are New York-style shows produced right here in our backyard. The artists are so at point in their craft.

I also tell people that coming to an MCT show is a great date thing to do but coming as a group is a lot of fun, too!