The world of teenage girls is a treacherous one. Alternately sunshiney and sullen, adolescent girls are virtuosos of eye-rolling, out-of-room stomping and door slamming. They're also funny, brave and kind, a potent mix that can make plumbing their psychological depths as impossible as it is imperative.
Black Butterfly, Jaguar Girl, Piñata Woman and Other Superhero Girls, Like Me, by MacArthur Award-winning playwright Luis Alfaro with poets Alma Elena Cervantes, Sandra C. Muñoz and Marisela Norte, attempts to capture some of the complexity of young women. The work is staged by Working Classroom, a nonprofit arts organization committed to providing education and opportunities to members of what they term “historically ignored communities.” It's a good fit, as the play looks at the experience of Latina teenagers in East Los Angeles. Their challenges are more than prom dates and hair; they include helping raise siblings' children, dealing with non-English speaking parents and daring to dream big in an environment that often requires extreme realism.
There's no central narrative to Black Butterfly. It's an ensemble piece in which each actor is both an individual character and a member of a chorus, one that ostensibly speaks the collective thoughts of the Female Teenager. There aren't scenes so much as vignettes designed to let us see snippets of the triumphs and trials of these girls' lives. Dance and music connect the parts, moving from the particular story of one girl to truths about the stories of all girls.
It's a format that's well suited to youth theater, allowing the fostering of strong moments without requiring the development of nuanced arcs. What struck me as odd, then, was that only two of the five actors appeared as if they could actually be teenagers. (Which should in no way be taken as offense; I'm certain that if I walked into Hot Topic, I'd be called “ma'am” and asked what I was getting for my teenage daughter.) It was only on the drive home that I reconciled the casting of women in the roles of girls under the notion that, to some extent, every woman who has made it to the other side of adolescence still carries with her an understanding of the interior life of young adults.
I feel good about this theory because about halfway through Black Butterfly, I experienced something like a flashback; given what my teenage years were like, I don't think it's far off to liken it to PTSD. The performances by the five actors, while at points artificial (due largely to the script), were raw enough to evoke the hot frustration of being young—of wanting to be loved and understood and yet left alone. Particularly poignant was a monologue by Danielle Fleming, one of the younger members of the troupe (which includes Amanda Machon, Marta Rodriguez, Sonja Tijerina and Anna Yurcic). While speaking of the death of her character's father, she was shocked and pleading, real tears pouring down her face. Meanwhile, Fleming's own father was sitting in the front row, a giant bouquet of flowers in his hands and proud smile on his face.
I'm not crazy about the script. It seems dated and pulls a few punches. But it's a blank enough canvas, allowing for Working Classroom's execution to succeed. Direction by Krista DeNio, with lighting design by Billy Tubb and set design by Richard Hess, lends a necessary fluidity to a piece that could easily come across as segmented. I can't recommend Black Butterfly as part of a dinner-wine-theater date package, but I can suggest it for families. It's a piece that aims for an open discussion of teenage emotions, and should you live with any proto-adults, availing yourself of this kind of insight ain't a bad idea.