The Black Butler Book of Atlantic theater is a rich, entertaining look at the history of black Americans at work in the antebellum plantation system. Author Barbara Bracknell tells the fascinating story of how the powerful slave trade, notorious for its brutality, ended up with the black man at the head of the line – and that of white America. The play includes a cast that includes Earnest Boykin, Estelle Gaines, Frank Foster, and John Heard; as well as cameos by Ebenezer Scrooge, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and more. Set in 1800, during the height of the Atlantic slave trade, The Black Butler tells the story of three young men who leave their native plantations to find work on the West Coast.
The opening scene of the play evokes the horror of slavery with the narrator’s announcement that a “great crowd has been waiting for me outside.” He is taken to what he terms as a “peculiar old house” where, he learns, the owner keeps black slaves as workers. After being whipped and left to live in an unheated, underground cell, he is given a chance at freedom when a white man arrives to free his captivating slave, Enid. Enid’s master, fearing that she will run away again, plans to sell her to another slave trader. But she refuses this offer, and so he consents to free her – but she must accompany him into the slave trader’s home, where he tortures her and amputates her right leg.
Enid’s story, in the words of the play’s protagonist, Butler, gives the audience a glimpse into the life of post-slavery America. Butler plays the role of Enid, a hard-working and determined woman who refuses to be separated from her beloved cat. She rises above the hardships of her past to find hope in the present and, after a near death experience, becomes a strong black woman who can read the thoughts of other black women and how they think. Throughout the play, Butler reflects on his own experiences as a black man in the United States, both the good and bad. At one point, he even questions whether or not he is a “real black man.” However, Butler manages to keep his reader engaged in his quest to weave an engaging and inspirational story about the history of slavery.
Butler’s play has received several productions. It first opened on Broadway in July of 2009 and closed on Broadway shortly before its end in April of the following year. The play was then made available on DVD and various other media in order for people to view the play several times over. During the months of July and August, a revival of the play was produced on New York’s West End.
As is typical of a play of this subject, the cast features many highly known black actors, including Micheal Williams, Leighton Meester, Chaka Khan, Ethelbert Miller, and Denholm Elliott. Additionally, James Earl Jones plays the role of the slave trader. It is interesting to note that during the early days of the play, many people mistakenly thought that Jones was actually the original slave trader, although he was not. Furthermore, many more characters from the play have been named, including Nat Turner, who was a former slaves’ leader and later an important figure in the Civil War.
Many of the events in the play take place in New Orleans at the time of the play’s inception. For example, the first scene shows Nat Turner being attacked by white men. As the play continues, we learn that Turner leads a rag-tag group of freed black men into a plantation owned by a white man. He and his men free the black women and children of the plantation and hold off white troops until reinforcements can arrive. The rest of the play is then set inside the plantation.
The black Butler character is played by an actor called Andre Boykin, who received an eight-year sentence for his role. As one might expect, many cast members of the play were opposed to having Boykin serve time in jail. One of the concerns that some people had was that Boykin would be portrayed as a villain. However, the play does end with Turner being free and living happily ever after. In fact, he even fulfills his purpose for serving in the military during the Civil War, which had been to protect black Americans.
There are many events in the timeline of the play, which make this a must-see production for any theater lover. During the play, you will see the role that the black Butler played in the Civil War. You will also learn more about the history of black Americans during the time period, which was dramatically different than it is today. This is a great way to refresh your memory about American history and black American culture in the early days of our nation.