University associate professor and playwright Darren Canady’s most recent work, “Black Butterflies,” focuses on the issue of children becoming lost in the juvenile system.
The play has received numerous awards and has been performed in theater communities throughout California.
“Black Butterflies” follows the life of three black teens, Aisha, Mercedes and Dani, each inside a juvenile detention center for a different reason. The teenagers are not given a good education until they are introduced to a new teacher, Ms. Constance, who uses literature to open the girls’ minds.
The show premiered in San Francisco on July 25 at the American Conservatory Theater and ran nightly until July 29. Then, the cast and crew of “Black Butterflies” traveled to Oakland, California, to perform the show at the Destiny Arts Center for performances on Aug. 4 and 5.
“Black Butterflies” was commissioned by the American Conservatory Theater, allowing Canady to work freely with the support of the conservatory.
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The director of “Black Butterflies,” Lauren Spencer, said the largest growing populations in juvenile halls are young girls of color. Spencer and Canady connect the story to this belief by casting three young girls of color in the lead roles. In fact, most of the cast members have a personal connection to the core message of the play.
“A lot of the cast have family members who have dealt with incarceration or with the judicial system,” Spencer said. “I want to stress that none of the cast members have been personally incarcerated.”
The system that Spencer refers to does not only include the judicial system, but she said it also includes the foster care system and any system that removes children from their families. Spencer said she believes children from ages 8 and up are disappearing into the system.
“We are culpable as a population for this disappeared population of children,” Spencer said. “Children as young as 8 are being strip searched and locked away.”
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Canady said he has been doing creative writing since he was about 9 years old, the same age he developed an interest in theater. Although he was interested in both, it took him several years before deciding to mold the two passions into one.
“It wasn’t until I was in college that I really tried to bring the writing and interest in theater together,” Canady said. “A sort of turning point was doing a theater abroad internship in London between my junior and senior year of college.”
Canady cited a few sources of inspiration for both his creativity and playwriting. One source was playwright August Wilson, known for “The Pittsburgh Cycle,” a series of 10 plays about the black experience in each decade of the 20th century. However, Canady also said his inspiration comes from a more personal source.
“I draw a lot of inspiration from my family members,” he said. “We are natural storytellers. We love telling a story in the longest way possible with the most activity we can."
The ambitious playwright has been honored with multiple awards throughout his career, including the Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award and the Theodore Ward Prize for African-American Playwrights. Both honors are awarded to African-American playwrights who excel at their craft.
Both Canady and Spencer said they worked on this play in order to impart a larger message onto the audience.
“I’m at a place in my career that I believe the making of theater is great,” Canady said. “But the making of the art does not, in and of itself, change the problematic structures of an oppressed system.”