When Theatre Arts Professor Charles “Buddy” Butler was eight years old, he was invited to audition for a play at Cleveland’s Karamu Theater, one of the oldest African-American theater groups in the country. He landed a part in “Jezebel’s Husband,” a satire by Robert Nathan, igniting a lifelong love of theater. An original member of New York City’s Negro Ensemble Company and a founding member of the Black Theatre Alliance and The Black Theatre Network, Butler believes theater is a medium for preserving cultural history and exploring universal truth.
“Sharing stories is very much part of the African-American experience,” he says. “Growing up, my parents and grandmother told me stories or read to me. All of these rich historical stories are part of our legacy. Being able to write and act those stories out made me want to be in theater. I get to share who I am with you. It breaks down so many barriers because our stories become common.”
There are no black or white emotions. You hurt, I hurt. Pain is pain, love is love. It’s the occasion which is different, not so much the feeling. But if we break life down to the essentials, we share almost everything. The only difference is our cultural and historic context.”
Butler worked as an actor and director in Seattle, Denver, Atlanta, San Francisco and Los Angeles. He dabbled in Blaxploitation films in the 1970s before returning to theater. His production of Samm-Art Williams’s “Home” was the first African-American production to tour Eastern Europe. Butler’s work has been recognized with an Obie, an NAACP Trailblazer Award, the Black Theatre Networks Winona Fletcher Award for Outstanding Achievement in Black Theatre and a Silicon Valley Black Legends Award. In August 2018, he was awarded The Lifetime Achievement Award in Black Theatre, presented by The Black Theatre Network at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social Change in Memphis, Tennessee.
By the early 1990s, however, Butler was a single father in search of a place to establish roots. His mentor Ethel Walker, then a professor of radio, television and theatre at San Jose State, invited him to apply for a position at SJSU. Over the last three decades, Butler has helped introduce colorblind casting at San Jose State and produced work by people of color. As a professor and director of plays both on campus and in regional theater, he has always sought out “message-driven plays.”
One such example is “Bang Bang You’re Dead,” a one-act play by William Mastrosimone that explores the aftermath of a school shooting from the perspective of the killer. Butler first produced the play in 2013 with SJSU’s School Touring Ensemble Program, which stages plays as part of an outreach program at schools across the city and state. In light of the 2018 Parkland shooting, he hopes to bring the play back in 2020. Butler believes his productions can engage young audiences in complex issues and inspire thoughtful dialogue.
“What is a story saying? What difference is it making? What is it revealing?” Butler asks. “I use theater as my chosen social and political platform. It’s not just entertainment. It’s cultural. It’s educational. By doing plays, I can make a difference.”