North Coast Rep lands play on Civil War general who changed history
‘Ben Butler’ is based on a real event, when a Union leader took in a runaway slave seeking sanctuary
Back around 2015, North Coast Repertory Theatre artistic director David Ellenstein got his hands on the script for Richard Strand’s play “Ben Butler.”
Three pages in, Ellenstein was hooked. But it would take him another six years to land the rights and produce the play, which opens Wednesday, Oct. 20 in its Southern California premiere at the Solana Beach theater.
Set in 1861 at Fort Monroe, Va., in the early months of the Civil War, the play is about controversial Union Army Gen. Benjamin Butler facing a moral dilemma when a runaway slave arrives at the fort seeking sanctuary. Butler must decide whether to return the slave to his master or essentially free the man by declaring him a “contraband of war.” Butler’s decision would change the course of the war and eventually lead President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
Ellenstein, who is directing “Ben Butler,” said what he likes most about the play was how it tells a human story that is both profound and funny.
“It’s not only about the big issues of the Civil War and slavery. It’s about what it is to be a human being,” he said. “It examines the historical figure Benjamin Butler who was a very controversial person who did amazingly good things and really awful things in his life.”
“It’s also extremely funny,” Ellenstein continued. “It makes you laugh as you watch these really smart people debating and negotiating with each other about these history-changing events. It walks this tightrope so well. Strand has really crafted an entertaining and powerful and important play.”
Ellenstein applied for the rights to the show every year for five years with no success until he finally wrote a letter to the playwright and Strand agreed to make the production happen. From the very beginning, Ellenstein said he always had just one actor in mind to play the colorful, larger-than-life role of Butler: Richard Baird, a San Diego actor who will be making his 33rd appearance onstage at North Coast Rep since his first show there 22 years ago.
Including Butler, three of the play’s four characters were real people. One is Shepard Mallory, a field hand who was one of three slaves who sought sanctuary at Fort Monroe in 1861, and Confederate Army Major John B. Cary, who came to the fort to retrieve Mallory and the other men. The fourth character, Butler’s adjutant Lt. Kelly, is fictional.
Actor Bruce Turk will play Major Cary and Brian Mackey will play Lt. Kelly. Ellenstein conducted a national search to cast the role of Mallory. He chose Brandon J. Pierce, a Philadelphia actor who sent in a taped audition.
“Brandon brought just the right mix of serious, humor and intellect,” Ellenstein said. “He’s a lovely man and a great actor and this is his first trip to California.”
The play arrives at North Coast on the heels of the Black Lives Matter movement, but that’s only because Ellenstein spent so many years trying to get the rights. He said that its message about Black civil rights is timeless.
“It’s not a new issue,” he said. “It’s an issue that America has been dealing with for many years. The 1960s was all about civil rights and we thought we’d gone through it, but we still have a long way to go.”
When: Opens Wednesday, Oct. 20 and runs through Nov. 14. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; 7 p.m. Sundays and Wednesdays.
Where: North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987D Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach.
COVID Policy: Proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID-19 PCR test result within 72 hours of performance date required. Masks are required indoors.
Phone: (858) 481-1055
Sign up for the Encinitas Advocate newsletter
Top stories from Encinitas every Friday for free.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Encinitas Advocate.