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Theatre Journal 52.3 (2000) 421-422
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Black Butterfly, Jaguar Girl, Piñata Woman, and Other Superhero Girls, Like Me
Black Butterfly, Jaguar Girl, Piñata Woman, and Other Superhero Girls, Like Me. Created by Luis Alfaro. The Getty Center, Los Angeles, California. 24 September 1999.
Black Butterfly is a spoken word performance project about girlhood in East Los Angeles. The project was commissioned by the Mark Taper Forum's Performing for Los Angeles Youth (P.L.A.Y.), a multiethnic theatre for young people. It evolved out of a collaboration between three Los Angeles poets--Alma Cervantes, Sandra Munoz, and Maricela Norte--who together wrote about their experiences growing up in East Los Angeles. Luis Alfaro and Lisa Peterson adapted the results of this collaboration into an hour-long production that is part poetry reading, part dramatic performance. Unlike a traditional poetry reading, Black Butterfly features various actors reading and interpreting the poets' words. This performance of Black Butterfly at the J. Paul Getty museum was part of the "Friday Night at the Getty Series," one of the Getty's outreach efforts to the various communities of Los Angeles.
The performance begins with a disc jockey, DJ Michael Sanchez, sampling an assortment of contemporary dance music. Alone and at work on the stage, he sets the rhythmic context for the themes [End Page 421] and concerns of the three poets' work. As his music fills the theatre, he is joined onstage by a cast of five Latina actors (Zilah Hill, Maricela Ochoa, Justina Machado, Annette Murphy, Christina Frias). The actors form a line and stand behind a simple arrangement of five microphones and wooden crates. The set design allows for the piece's adaptability to any performance space--from the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. as part of the summer 2000 One-Theatre World Festival to middle and high schools in Los Angeles where it tours throughout the year.
The central figure (Justina Machado) begins her narrative while the other characters stand with their backs to the audience. The young girl has been assigned to keep a poetry journal about her life. In her opening monologue, she expresses her desire to be a writer but wonders whether her ordinary life can be a suitable subject for poetry. Encouraged by the teacher to write about "real life," the girl uses her memories as a springboard for her writing. After this monologue, she steps back and the other characters take a turn in the spotlight. What begins as a singular narrative in the voice of the central figure becomes a circular and rhythmic exchange between all five of the actors. This collective rhythm is mirrored by the music of DJ Sanchez, whose beats are subtly incorporated throughout the performance in response to the girls' moods and the tempo of their words. His Latin-influenced electric and fusion dance music frames the performance and suggests that music is an integral part of Latina adolescence. The young girls, encouraged by his innovative sampling of various musical styles, begin to experiment with the sounds of their own voices.
While the five actors skillfully and energetically portray the diverse attitudes of contemporary Latina adolescents, the characters share the common experience of growing up Latina. The performance takes advantage of the diversity and range of the five actors, allowing them to invest the roles with their own experiences and interpretations of the poets' work. The collaborative efforts of the artists involved in the performance create a fictional narrative based upon diverse actual experiences. As the characters--and by extension, the actors--alternate between speaking and listening, their poems weave an intimate portrayal of young Latinas growing up in East Los Angeles. As the characters share with each other their experiences of Latina adolescence, we hear the voices of the Latina poets and actors who created the piece. The commitment of this older generation of Latinas to the future of this younger generation of Latinas is palpable throughout the performance.
We see the act of writing become transformative for the...