Butler by Richard Strand is in its final two weeks at New Jersey Repertory Company (in Long Branch). The play tells the true life story of Benjamin Butler, a lawyer turned Major General during the start of the Civil War, who is in charge of Fort Monroe, a Union hold-out in Virginia. Shepard Mallory, played by John G. Williams, is an escaped slave who seeks sanctuary at the fort. Unfortunately, the law of the land still allows for slavery and his owner seeks to have him returned. It's a wonderful play that mixes drama with comedy to great effect, while telling an amazing historical story that deserves to be told.
John G. Williams, a Rutgers graduate who is brilliant as Shepard Mallory, recently spoke with New Jersey Stage.
I thought you gave a tremendous performance — especially during the first act when the role seems so mentally demanding. There are roles like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman that actors often describe as mentally draining to perform night after night. Do you feel that way about Shepard? Is the role draining?
Well, I'm exhausted when I go off stage for intermission, that's for sure, but I have enough time off stage that once the show is over I feel good to go.
During the rehearsal process, I started holding my body a certain way and breathing a certain way, and I noticed that I would find myself sort at weird times. That was something in the performance that I didn't really expect. Generally, I'm exhausted at intermission, but, as far as performing the character, it doesn't take too much out of me.
It seems like the second act is a bit lighter in tone. Does that help make it a bit easier?
It does... I imagine this character as holding so much in. He has been through so much in his life and he really hasn't had the opportunity to be himself up to this point in any situation. So, I just imagine this person being completely clenched all of the time - never able to relax. And when he gets the news that things may finally be turning around for him, he can finally breathe. For me, as an actor to be able to do that on stage, it does release some tension.
After some rehearsals, I was pretty exhausted because that's where a lot of the real work gets done. That's where you try things, scenes are a bit longer, and there's experimentation and stuff. Those days are a lot more exhausting. Now that the work is done and I've sort of found who the character is to me, I've been able to internalize it and communicate it on stage. And it's a little bit less exhausting each day. Now that it's all incorporated, I can access it a little bit faster.
You mentioned finding the character... many of your previous roles were in classic plays such as The Misanthrope, Romeo & Juliet, and Antigone. What's it like to be the guy that actually creates the character for the first time?
It's awesome! This is a new experience for me and I have to say I love it — just knowing that nobody has ever done it before, the first time anybody's ever seen this character personified was through me. That's a really thrilling thing to think about. Frankly, it makes me want to do it again and again and keep doing it and keep finding things because I do feel a certain ownership over it now.
Was that something that drew you to the play or do you think you didn't realize how important it was until you actually went through it?
Well, I knew it would be a world premiere, but being in the room with the other actors and the director and the producers, all of us working on it and finding our voices and the interplay between us, I think we all really liked that aspect of it. It's such a great play. The script is so strong. In the initial stage, that's what drew me to it more than anything else.
The script... the dialogue... the lines I would get to say — just this character that had been written. There's so much there, but I felt like I sort of understood the character's core to an extent. I kind of understood what this person may be dealing with, I could conceptualize it. I definitely don't understand because I'm much more fortunate than this person, but I could conceive of what the struggle in him would be. That's what was the most exciting part - this phenomenal character had been written and I might get an opportunity to play it.
What I love about the play is how it mixes dramatic moments and this very sensitive subject matter with some really great - almost slapstick - comedic scenes.
I don't think I was totally aware of just how funny it was until we got up on our feet and started doing it. Reading the script for the first time, I realized there were some funny parts but it's like I'm a runaway slave... that's not funny! Then I got up there and I'm reading the words and I'm realizing the play is hilarious. And I'm ok with that, it's not offensive or anything. It was a really interesting feeling.
And I love that the play is actually based on a true story.
Yeah, it's a phenomenal story and it's cool that somebody wrote something about it. In our talkbacks, it's a little embarrassing for me to say that I didn't know the story, but we've heard from a lot of people who didn't know it either. So, it's a great story being told now. The Civil War is so fascinating and there's so much to it, this is yet another nugget.
Any plans for after this run? Anything set yet?
Not quite yet, I'm auditioning for stuff here and there; theatre projects, web series, and commercials.
Butler runs until July 13, 2014 at New Jersey Repertory Company (179 Broadway, Long Branch, New Jersey 07740). For more info or to purchase tickets visit http://www.njrep.org.
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.