A few years ago, Marisela Norte was trying to convince a young high school girl that her life was worth writing about. “I told her, ’You don‘t need to be famous, you don’t need to be important,‘” Norte remembers. “I said, ’There are incredible stories — the most incredible stories — in your own back yard.‘” Norte, a poet who gathers her own material from, among other places, the crowd that rides the 18 bus from East L.A. to downtown, assured her young recruit that the details of life she deemed mundane were as verseworthy as any. “So,” the girl pondered, “does that mean I can write a poem about Target?”
Indeed: For the last three years, Norte, and poets Sandra C. Muñoz and Alma Cervantes have been working with playwright, director and performer Luis Alfaro to develop a play about the everyday reality of teenage girls in East L.A., Black Butterfly, Jaguar Girl, Piñata Woman and Other Super Hero Girls, Like Me. Initially invited to be staged at the Getty, the play, currently being produced as part of the Mark Taper Forum’s “Taper, Too” series, has evolved (with dramaturgical help from Lisa Peterson) into a prose poem in which drinking from a garden hose (agua de la manguera) — or the childhood memory of a red velvet couch ruined by a Twinkie — carries as much literary value as the oblique suggestion of a father‘s violence. And that value is carried without romanticism or sensationalism, but in the images’ mundane glory.
“The teenager‘s story is usually presented as a journey of escape,” says Alfaro. “And it usually involves a boy — Peter Pan being the classic example. But going from girlhood to womanhood is a really hard thing, and we don’t really look at it. There‘s a lot of fear, a lot of emotional violence about that time in a girl’s life. The girls who have come to see the show have been thrilled to see that uncensored.”
Cervantes, who was raised in East L.A.‘s Maravilla Projects, wrote searing poetry about her difficult childhood; Muñoz, a Pasadena civil rights lawyer who grew up in East L.A., contributed the story of her own father’s death from alcoholism. “It took awhile to rediscover that young voice,” Muñoz says. “In the writing workshops we had, Luis would ask us ‘Who was your best friend? Describe your neighborhood.’ There were a lot of times when you had to get in touch with memories you hadn‘t thought about.”
Norte, who at 45 felt too removed from her own adolescence to do it justice, turned to neighborhood girls for inspiration. “One day I was talking to my cousin’s daughter — I call her my niece — and she was watching me get dressed, saying, ‘More jewelry, more lipstick, more perfume!’ I said to her, ‘What do you do all day, how do you spend your time?’ She said, ‘Oh, you know, I sit around with my friends, smashing secrets’ — she meant confiding in each other. And I thought, ‘That’s it. I have to be her.‘” Which wasn’t, in the end, such a stretch: “These girls dress now like I dressed in the ‘60s,” she says, “all love beads and bell-bottoms. My life is their nostalgia.”
From the 130 pages of poetry the three women submitted, Alfaro and crew crafted a 55-minute play, tailored to a high school period, in which three characters, speaking individually and as a chorus, travel from age 12 to 17, confessing crushes on boys, complaining of family turmoil, declaring their hopes for their futures. It is not, as the poets and director recognize, what audiences expect from theater largely directed at young people.
“Youth theater,” says Alfaro with an enthusiasm that suggests he’s discovered a new passion, “is an artistic frontier. Europeans have put a lot of money into creating theater for teenagers. They introduce kids to the avant-garde, they use it to talk about complex political issues. They allow nudity, they have dark, primal images. But in this country we give them escape and fantasy . . . [The European model] made me feel I didn‘t have to sacrifice exploring dangerous territory to create this piece.
”A lot of teachers freaked out about [presenting the idea of] the girl’s father dying,“ Alfaro adds. ”And some have been critical about the lack of fantasy. But others have looked at it as a gift. They know that this is based in reality. Creating this work made me realize what youth theater could be.“
Black Butterfly begins with a demand for the audience‘s attention: ”Hey, look at me! Look at my father walking home from workLook at the big palm tree in our front yardLook at the sign at Carnitas Michoacan: ’Over Five Zillion Sold!‘“
Its title comes from a tattoo Norte observed on a girl bus rider’s arm. ”It said, ‘I’ll remember you‘ under it in that swirling, gorgeous East L.A. writing,“ she says. ”To me it was more than a tattoo — it was ink.“ It is not an image of escape, but of survival.
Black Butterfly, Jaguar Girl, Piñata Woman and Other Super Hero Girls, Like Me performs with Roy Conboy’s Drive My Coche at the Actors‘ Gang Theater, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Tuesdays through Sundays at 8 p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m.; through June 25. Call (213) 628-2772. See New Reviews in Calendar.