The Butterfly Effect: An Interview with Black Butterflies Director Lauren Spencer

By Elspeth Sweatman

Artwork for 2017 production of Black Butterflies.
“We’re at a moment of true crisis. No one is really acknowledging the disappearance of our young girls of color,” says Black Butterflies director Lauren Spencer. “They are the fastest growing population in juvenile hall. An entire population is disappearing behind walls. And it’s not that people aren’t doing anything about it, but the girls are so hidden and forgotten.”

Black Butterflies, which runs through July 29 at The Rueff at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, aims to bring those stories into the light. This world premiere production centers on three young girls of color who find themselves caught in a stifling web of educational neglect, calcified courts, and an overwhelmed incarceration system. Pushed out of society, they must fight to survive with their humanity, dignity, and individuality intact.

Written by award-winning playwright Darren Canady, Black Butterflies is the latest play commissioned for A.C.T.'s Collaborative Youth Arts Project. Now in its third year, CYAP brings together a diverse group of young actors from the Bay Area to create a play articulating the needs and challenges of youth in today’s world. The project supports the cultivation of new work and serves young actors from three arts communities: A.C.T.’s Education & Community Programs, the Young Conservatory, and Destiny Arts in Oakland.

During rehearsals for Black Butterflies, we spoke with director Lauren Spencer about the production and some new developments to CYAP.

This play deals with weighty topics. How have you approached these in the rehearsal room?
A lot of the cast have family members who have dealt with incarceration or with the judicial system. Many are dealing with being girls of color in school and the expectations around that: being told that you need to be good, keep your mouth shut, dress appropriately, don’t be too opinionated, don’t be too free. My approach has been to honor and acknowledge that they have a wealth of experience that they can bring to the rehearsal room which will make the piece more alive. It’s my job to create space for that, to create as much freedom and permission to use their own experiences to inform their performances.

The cast and creative team of Black Butterflies.
One thing new about CYAP this year is the scale of community engagement surrounding the production. What organizations have you partnered with?
We reached out to community organizations that work with system-involved girls and their families, like Each One Reach One and the Young Women’s Freedom Center. After one of the performances, there will be a panel where representatives from these organizations will talk about their work.

We’ve also partnered with youth artists to approach this topic from different artistic mediums, not just theater. We have two poets from Youth Speaks who came to rehearsals and created poems that they'll perform on opening night. We also have some student artists who have designed work for the show that will be displayed in the lobby.

Why this story now?
This nationwide problem is not going to change unless each individual takes responsibility for raising our youth. We need to be present for our young girls and figure out creative ways to do that.

Black Butterflies runs July 25–29 at The Rueff at A.C.T.'s Strand Theater, and at Destiny Arts Center in Oakland August 4–5. Click here to purchase tickets. Each show will be followed by a short additional performance, panel discussion, or Q&A. To learn more, click here

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