The characters in Andrea Thome’s Fandango for Butterflies (and Coyotes) live their lives balanced between soaring hope and existential dread–which may seem not unusual in these perilous times, but everyone at this gathering of Latinx immigrants on NYC’s Lower East Side has urgent and pressing reasons for both. Most of the characters are undocumented, and for each that causes a different set of complex circumstances, a different state of suspension: An ankle monitor from the feds that must be charged three times a day. Check-ins with ICE every few months, and on one of those they might not let you go. Raids on the streets of NYC. The paralyzingly tense waiting period for a relative who’s fallen out of contact while making the dangerous trip across the border. And even those who are legal—several of the younger women have received their papers due to being abandoned or orphaned children—come from families, and communities, with immigration issues of their own. No one is untouched: by the need to transform their life that brought these men and women from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, the Dominican Republic; by the fear of that fragile life being shattered; by the regrets and second-guessing that come along with uprooting; by the joy of finding a new community in a strange and unfamiliar place.
The piece takes place at a gathering—a fandango—in a cultural center housed in a church in the Lower East side. It’s a sanctuary space, so this crew feels safe to gather there and celebrate—even though their normal cares still weigh heavy. Mari (Anaya), the hostess, has a sick mother at home in Mexico and she can do nothing but send what money she can afford. Honduran cousins Rogelio (Carlo Albán) and Elvin (Andrés Quintero) work on a horse ranch upstate, and they’ve come into the city to meet Johan (Tolentino) another arriving cousin who’s just crossed the border. They have no way to contact him, and the tension inherent in the waiting drives the piece. Rafaela (Silvia Dionicio), a college student, has been invited by her teacher, who never shows up. This character feels like the play’s weakest: her story, of arriving in a more matter-of-fact way, as a child, by plane, and just settling in, is worth telling as a counterpoint to the others’ more obvious struggles–but as the newcomer, Rafaela also bears the burden of becoming a vessel for exposition.
Commissioned by En Garde Arts in 2017 and inspired by interviews with a dozen undocumented immigrants from all over Latin America, the play braids individual stories together into a single gathering on a single day. The need to tell these kinds of stories, of course, has only grown over the past few years, as current policy toward the undocumented and immigrants in general has continued to become harsher and more draconian. (The show will tour the five boroughs for the remainder of February and March.) But while the stories are heartbreaking in their ordinariness, inspiring, and in some cases enraging, the play as a whole has a harder time finding its footing. Tonally, it veers between realism and poetic lyricism, and while some of the performers (particularly Jen Anaya as hostess and presiding spirit Mari and Roberto Tolentino as Johan, the newest arrival) nimbly make the shift, director José Zayas doesn’t always seem to have a firm grip on the oscillations. And while the original music (composed by Sinuhé Padilla and performed by Padilla, Tania Mesa, and others in the cast) works beautifully as a bridge among the cultures, it sometimes breaks the pacing of the storytelling and relationships.
Fandango was clearly born out of the urgency of our historical moment and a passion for social change, and the stories it tells feel important and necessary. But despite its earnestness, and the genuine sweetness and tenderness within some of the relationships–Rogelio and Elvin, waiting for Johan; Rafaela’s tentative bond to Pili (Frances Ines Rodriguez)–the play as a whole sometimes feels fussy and overadorned. There’s power in the butterfly metaphor that recurs–seeming fragile and beautiful, but really an emblem of persistence and transformation–but there’s more power in the characters speaking plainly about their lives: the constraints placed on Elvin by his ankle monitor; the scrabbling for safety on the train called La Bestia; the endless trek through the cold, cold desert and the constant fear of being sent back. It’s the real people behind these stories, and the real stakes for their real lives, that should drive the piece. The poetry and dance and music that bind these characters together are important too, of course, but sometimes they get in the way of the stories being told.