In Colombia, there’s a legend of a butterfly that visits you before the passing of a family member. Some call it a superstition, others an omen – I think of it as a companion to the bloodline. I heard it said recently that grief should never be a surprise if we can help it, so when I look to the butterfly that’s visited my family through generations, I see a guardian preparing those who are to remain earth-bound and guiding those making their way to the afterlife. MARIPOSA, the piece I’ve been working on through my residency at Buddies, is a tribute to this butterfly & to the many Mariposas that guide us in the deaths and awakenings that we experience during our time here. Less so with altars and hymns, and more so with pasties and rock music.
When I first began my residency at Buddies, there was a little voice in the back of my head screaming for me to write a musical but it seemed so far out of my skill set at the time. I was a poet and a theatre performer with experience co-creating new work, but had only written one play on my own at the time and didn’t have experience as a composer. The piece I was developing kept shifting so often that when the heads of my residency would ask what I was writing, I just began saying “It’s not a play. It’s something; it’s just not a play.” It went from live poetry anthology to art installation to ensemble piece. Finally, this past year, it became what it had been asking to be all along. A musical.
During the pandemic, I had the great privilege of receiving a residency from Aluna Theatre to retrain my voice and develop original music. Having graduated from Randolph College I had excellent training under my belt but as my voice had changed through the years since starting HRT, Aluna made it financially possible for me to explore my voice in a new way with the support of my amazing vocal coach Jeannie Wyse. It was important to me as we entered lessons and developed new foundations, that I re-examine what voice was to me and how I as a non-binary singer would allow myself to play as much as possible within it. As I began my writing process, I knew I wanted to bring on a consultant who was more experienced than I was to, in all honesty, tell me when things were terrible and support me technically in reworking the music. I can’t even begin to describe how extraordinary it is to think that the person I asked to work with me not only said yes, but quickly went from consultant to collaborator. Katelyn Molgard of Bad Waitress came onto the project with such an open mind and collaborative attitude that working with them felt like second nature. Their level of skill pushed me to elevate what I was creating while also giving me room to run amuck and learn to trust my own voice and instincts. But mainly, every ounce of it was just heaps of fun. Knowing that Katelyn had a background in theatre, the moment I decided to make my piece at Buddies a musical, they were the first person I reached out to… and they said YES!
Mortality isn’t something I’m new to thinking about. If anything it’s one of the things I’ve felt most aware of throughout my life. The removal of life, however, is a bit more complicated and begins to get morally dicy. As a kid my morals felt easy whether my family agreed with them or not. I remember the majority of my thought processes – the visions I had of the world as I knew it and moments when they would pivot. When I first learned about Che Guevara I thought he was the coolest person in the world. To be honest it’s because he was the first person I’d ever seen that really looked like me and, to the great insult of my mother’s virtue, convinced myself he was my real father. Obviously, I was incorrect. However, I remember that every time I asked about him, everything everyone told me seemed to match up with my moral compass. They told me he believed in a system that gave everyone resources to live equally. I thought it sounded great. They told me he gave up a life of privilege to fight for people to stop suffering. I thought he sounded great. I remember it terrified my parents. I remember not understanding why. As an adult, I’ve found that every time I return to reading about him I realize how much has shifted within me as a person. The information is often mostly the same but the way I receive it always feels different. Time introduces us to grey areas where we develop a range for nuance, but it can also bring us to understand humanity in ways we never would’ve wanted to. It made me wonder about the butterfly. It made me wonder how she felt about her warnings and what it meant to escort the dead.
Mariposa, in Spanish, not only means butterfly but doubles as a slur towards queer people. As in other languages, it’s one that many within the community have chosen to reclaim. It also happens to be the meaning of my birthname. I don’t refer to mine as a deadname because that’s just not the relationship I have to it, but it’s definitely not something you should call me if you’re anyone other than the woman who gave it to me. I can’t help but find the ritual in the way my parents signed a name that already held so much of me onto my birth certificate, the way they painted it onto my bedroom door and stitched it into my clothing. As someone who’s been out their entire career and transitioned publicly, as I enter my seventh year as a drag and burlesque performer, and as someone who has dedicated their life to their communities, I think about how Mariposa may as well be stitched into every garment I’ve ever owned. How it may as well be etched into my skin.
Flipping through the early pages of this project I remember that my writing kept itself so closely in proximity with death. I remember being inundated with statistics at the time about my community – our life expectancies constantly lingering in everything I did. Sitting in a meeting with our residency director at the time, Mel Hague, I felt like I was writing in circles till she looked at me and said something along the lines of “What if the character doesn’t die?”. It felt like the first time anyone had given me the option. This past year, I reintroduced myself to my piece. In a way, I’d become living proof to the me that had started this project that life was the option. I set aside everything I’d written and reassessed who I’d become. I had new skill sets, new curiosities, a new sense of humour, and new frustrations. One day, while I was ranting on the phone with my mother about abolition and the fantastical solution I’d invented as a child that still rang true, she responded with something along the lines of “Just write that as your residency”. It feels oddly fitting to name it the same thing she’d named me.
So today I ask, if we’re the butterflies, who are we guardians to? And if we’re not the ones living in fear, who is the omen for and who dies instead?
MARIPOSA, the musical, follows a troupe of drag and burlesque performers that live and perform in a candle and sequin-lit castle on a queer-made island. From politicians, to starlets, to wielders of diplomatic immunity, silent signatures ensure the house as the best mutually-kept secret to the crème de la crème. Between walls that lay thicker than thieves and on soil where crystal and red lipstick reign supreme, only whispers get you in but not every breath gets out. A cutthroat musical teasing morality with one hand and committing murder with the other, MARIPOSA toys with the part of your conscience you didn’t know was ticklish.
I’d like to give a special thanks to Sly Pereira, the incredible photographer who not only shot these photos but also built the sets to bring three of the musical’s rooms to life, as well as to Lucinda Miu who designed and created our bloody blazer specifically for this project. MARIPOSA is a love letter to Toronto’s drag and burlesque scene, a community that has been a core part of my life for many years and whose community members have deeply changed me for the better and become my family. This project wouldn’t be possible without the love they’ve extended to me since day one.
Photo Credit: Sly Pereira
Garments by: Lucinda Miu