Benjamin Benne wrestles with identity in a new play about a band on the verge.
As a playwright, Benjamin Benne traffics in emotional cartography, plaiting the natural and supernatural together—here be dragons. Geographically, he’s all over the map these days: “I always say I’m born and raised in LA, Seattle is home. I’m based in Minneapolis and New York is sort of where my heart is at the moment.”
Benne is starting his second year in residence at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, but the literary producer at Seattle-based theatre company Forward Flux is back in town to premiere a new play with music by Angie Citlali Vance. Las Mariposas y Los Muertos is about a band on the verge of either hitting it big or dissolving under the pressures of public image and artistic compromise.
You’ve been developing Las Mariposas with Forward Flux for some time now. What has the process been like?
This has been the hardest play I’ve ever written. It began as a commission; [Forward Flux artistic director] Wesley [Frugé] was interested in commissioning a piece about death and dying in the digital age and I came to him with a pitch like two years ago. I think the only things that have remained consistent since then are the four characters and the fact that it’s about a band. In the beginning, it was more superficial; now it’s become so personal that I’m a little afraid of the play. That’s always a place I want to be as a writer—and a struggle I’m a little scared to engage with.
Can you articulate that struggle at all?
Ideas of identity, culture and how we connect to our heritage have gotten richer with each pass, but I realized that a lot of this play is also about artistic process—how we use certain labels, like Latino and queer, to describe ourselves as a person and as an artist, labels that people put a lot of weight on but that don’t really say anything about us. In fact, I think labels like that give people an idea of who I am that’s actually nothing like who I am. It doesn’t reflect the complexity of the person or the artist that I am, and I think that’s at the heart of the play.
Is starting from an existing topic, like death and dying in the digital age, a natural way for you to work?
I had to reinterpret that idea to make it personal. Death turned into this idea of legacy, what we leave behind. The digital age became identity, how we present ourselves in the world via Facebook, Instagram, etc. I was interested in the distance between those two things: that façade and who we actually are.
Given the day-to-day insanity of the world, do you find your work responding to the social climate?
That’s not something I’m consciously doing, but I think these ideas that I had pre-election will speak a little louder post-election. [The play] dabbles in questions of identity—two of the main characters identify as Latinx, Chicana specifically. There are also threads about cultural appropriation, what it means to be a good ally and what it means to feel like you’re being exploited for your heritage.
Las Mariposas y Los Muertos
Sept. 19 – Oct. 7
West of Lenin