When a longtime stage-manager friend of producer Paula Mitchell Manning persuaded her to consider producing a new play about child soldiers in Uganda, her first response was that she was too busy. Mitchell Manning had recently started two new businesses and didn't feel she had time. But she took the meeting anyway. When the play's co-writer Söenke C. Weiss handed her a photo of a child soldier, all of Mitchell Manning's hesitation dissolved. "It was hauntingly beautiful, and it just took my heart away," she said. "That's how I got involved."
Opening this week, Butterflies of Uganda: The Memories of a Child Soldier follows the story of a young adolescent named Mary who is abducted and forced to murder her parents, then fight for the Lord's Resistance Army, a guerrilla army that has engaged in armed rebellion against the Ugandan government since 1987. Weiss and her co-writer, Darin Dahms, spent eight days in Uganda interviewing children who had been abducted and forced to fight as soldiers. Dahms, an actor who also directed Butterflies, had never been out of the country before.
"The story is largely based on one individual girl that we met," said Dahms. "She was abducted when she was 12. She was forced to kill her own father. She was given as a wife to the second in command of the Lord's Resistance Army, so she was repeatedly raped by that man, and he would give her at times to a lieutenant as a gift. He also repeatedly raped her. She managed to escape when she was 14 and went to this rehabilitation center that we visited."
That girl, now age 20, at one point tried to commit suicide once she realized she was pregnant, but after she was rescued she decided to have the child. Dahms met her and her child, who is now 6, in Uganda. The play fictionalizes that real-life child as the character Mercy, who asks her mother who her father was, prompting the telling of the story.
The cast of Butterflies consists purely of African-American, Nigerian, and Ugandan actors, plus one Hispanic actor. Dahms said he found casting the play difficult until the Los Angeles Ugandan community caught wind of the production. "The Ugandan community of Los Angeles just came out of the woodwork," he said. "Once we got the word out, it really wasn't that difficult to find people."
Mitchell Manning said these members of the Ugandan community were invited to watch workshop performances of the piece and were encouraged to submit feedback. "I wanted to make sure that we were respecting the story and respecting the situation that's going on in Uganda," she said. One former abductee who recently escaped from Uganda came to view the show. "He went to talk to the cast and told them as much as he could, but there are things that were still too horrible for him to express," added Mitchell Manning. "I think everybody in this production keeps that in mind. They remember when he came in and talked to them. And they remember what he went through, and it's bigger than anybody's one ego. It's about making sure this [story] gets out there."
In conjunction with the play is a series of symposiums designed to provoke dialogue in the Los Angeles community about important issues facing African Americans. The first symposium, "Violence or Peace: From Watts to Uganda—The Underlying Causes for Self Hatred in Our Community," will be Sept. 8.
Dahms said the play contains many uplifting themes that will resonate with most viewers because it relates universally to their own families and communities. Mitchell Manning said the play will help viewers find perspective on their own lives. "It takes you outside of yourself, because whenever you think something's bad in your own life, you look at what these people have survived and are overcoming, and it makes everything, at least in my life, look like small potatoes," said Mitchell Manning, who now carries that photo by Weiss of the Ugandan child soldier around with her as inspiration for when she considers her own life's troubles. "I just keep looking back at this picture, 'cause this child may be dead by now."
For more information on Butterflies of Uganda and the symposium series, call (323) 655-7679 or visit www.butterfliesofuganda.com. The play runs Sept. 7–Oct. 13 at the Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A. General admission tickets are $25.