LAWRENCE — Can an adult male who’s never been incarcerated relate well enough to the experiences of young minority women sentenced to reform school to write something true and moving about that experience?
Well, if the tears of audience members who saw a staged reading of Darren Canady’s “Black Butterflies” this spring are any indication, the answer is “yes.”
The University of Kansas associate professor of English seems likely to receive further validation when the San Francisco-based American Conservatory Theater stages the world premiere of his latest work July 25-29.
In January, Canady received a commission to write a play for a collaboration among ACT's Education & Community Programs, its Young Conservatory and the Destiny Arts Center in Oakland, California. The show moves to Destiny Arts Center for performances Aug. 4-5.
Canady has written so many things, from short monologues to full-length plays, that he’s lost count, although he’s quick to recall some of the renowned stages his works have graced, from London’s Old Vic to Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre.
A native of Topeka, Canady said that when he began his career as a playwright, he wrote what he knew.
“I wrote from personal and family experience,” he said. “I realized that stories from my family members — black people who lived and died in the Midwest — were largely an empty space in dramatic literature. Over the past couple of years, I have found myself writing more about things that make me angry; people and situations that have been silenced in the larger cultural conversation.
“But it’s tricky writing outside yourself. It’s a harder, slower process. It requires you to lay down your ego, for instance, if someone tells me what I have written is not right or true to the situation. The reward is it has allowed me to stretch the possibilities of what I thought I could do as a playwright.”
Canady said he has been inspired by the work of his colleague, Assistant Professor of Education Subini Ancy Annamma, on girls of color in detention facilities.
“She looks at how black and brown girls who’ve been labeled with learning disabilities get placed in incarceration facilities and what their experience is like there; how scarring and traumatic a lot of their experiences were,” Canady said. “I realized how many things I just didn’t know about what we used to call the school-prison pipeline, or now the nexus. I began to think, ‘There’s a play here. There are a lot of things people just don’t realize.’ So I began to build out from Subini’s work and from Dr. Monique Morris’ 2015 book, called ‘Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools.’ I began to put some flesh and blood on the statistics.”
Canady said he wrote his play with three teenage girls as the core characters: Aisha, Mercedes and Dani. Their teacher, Constance, is the fourth most important character in the one-act play that employs nine actors, some in multiple roles.
Canady said he tried to follow the advice he gives his play-writing students: Answer the questions “Who is it about?,” “What do they want?” and “What’s in the way?”
“They want autonomy, respect, dignity,” Canady said of the main characters. “What’s in the way? A series of systems and institutions: school, detention center, family, the messaging in their own minds about who they are.”
The central dramatic action of the play comes in response to Canady’s further question to himself: “What are they willing to do to overcome what’s in the way?”
“I knew when I sat down to write I wanted them to take some sort of disruptive action; to upend the status quo, but I was not sure what that action would be,” he said.
The teacher character, Constance, is a key to this action, Canady said.
“She’s the girls’ champion, but she also has her shortcomings and flaws,” he said. “Her teaching method can free the girls, but it can also lead to them taking some action that could lead to further punishment.”
Canady said he and the play have empathy for everyone involved; from the girls, of whom statistics show 60 percent have suffered some form of sex abuse or trauma, to the teachers and administrators, who lack resources and training to best deal with their charges.
After his initial draft, Canady said he sought critiques from Annamma and others. After a staged reading in May at ACT brought some audience members to tears, he continued rewriting.
Canady traveled to the Bay Area for the first rehearsals in late June, and he has been in constant touch with the show’s director, Lauren Spencer, even watching some later rehearsals via Skype. He’s now looking forward to seeing the premiere, where he will participate in a talk-back session following the July 26 performance.
“I am not specifically looking to make them cry, but I hope they are moved,” Canady said, “and I hope the young actors receive some love from the audience. Part of the goal is to show these young women that they have talent.”
Canady said the play’s title was inspired by Deniece Williams’ 1984 “pop power ballad” titled “Black Butterfly.”
“It’s the idea of transformation,” he said. “I’d like to believe the play looks at how these girls are transformed, in positive and negative ways, by the facility. The idea of going into a tight, confined space and then breaking out is still there, but I am trying to problematize that. If they have the right teacher, some of that change can be for the better.”
Photo: Darren Canady (third from left) joined the cast of ‘Black Butterflies’ at a recent rehearsal in San Francisco. Photo courtesy of Jay Yamada.