On Friday, June 24, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. On Sunday, June 26, a group of around 20 people gathered at the state capitol in Austin, Texas, a state where abortion had already been almost entirely banned. It was 2 p.m., and the weather was a sweltering 100 degrees. That day’s protests weren’t scheduled to begin yet, but under the shade of a large tree, the members of this small group settled down, kicking off their shoes and making themselves comfortable on their picnic blankets. Then a few of them took out a stapled handout of paper, on the front of which read the wish: a manual for a last-ditch effort to save abortion in the united states through theater. One by one, they began to read the play out loud.
Right off the bat, the play addressed what had just happened, with a character named Justice (also the name of one of the writers of the play, Justice Hehir) saying, “Roe is gone. When you heard, what did your body do? I crouched on the floor of my kitchen. And I didn’t want to get up.”
As this ad-hoc group kept reading, passersby would stop, stand still, and listen. Theatremaker Lynn Hoare, who works at the Performing Justice Project and who helped organize the reading, recalled the energy at the beginning as “quiet and sad.” By the end of the reading, though, Hoare said the mood had markedly shifted. “People talked about how necessary it felt to actually gather and come together,” Hoare said. “And many people said at the end of the reading that they felt better, they felt more in community with other people.”
Hoare, who discovered the wish through an American Theatre podcast about it, said she felt “relieved and grateful to have an opportunity to gather with other people and to know that people were showing up and that I didn’t have to grieve this horrible loss in isolation.” On Aug. 14 and Aug. 28, Hoare is co-hosting more Sunday afternoon readings of the wish at the capitol. But I have to wonder: What good can a play reading do?
Much like Justice in the wish, when the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision was officially released, after months of dreadful anticipation, I felt my heart drop in the pit of my stomach. I stayed in bed for most of the day. Many women have described the loss of Roe as grief. It’s a fitting word, as grief is a feeling that emerges from loss. When more than half of the nation’s population has just lost federal protection for their right to bodily autonomy, with nine states banning abortions outright and four banning it after six weeks of pregnancy—that loss is not merely individual but collective as well. The grief is overwhelming, like the alien creature in Jordan Peele’s latest film Nope, threatening to suck us all into its gaping maw.
So when I got the assignment to report on how theatremakers are responding to the loss of abortion rights, my first thought was: What’s the point? Even the title of the wish: a manual for a last-ditch effort to save abortion in the united states through theater filled me with skepticism. It’s right there in the title: The idea that theatre can make any kind of real-world impact seemed, more than ever, like wishful thinking. When faced with a loss of human rights—with accounts of real women being forced to bleed out because they cannot get an abortion for their miscarriages, or of preteen girls being forced to give birth—what any piece of theatre might do to counter such injustice naturally feels pitiful and small. I mean, why stage a play when you could stage a protest?
I expressed these misgivings to the creators of the wish: writers Justice Hehir, Dena Igusti, Phanesia Pharel, Nia Akilah Robinson, and Julia Specht. They understood my ambivalence, but challenged me right back. As Pharel said, theatremaking does not have to be separate from activism. In fact, it can and should be part of it. And having debates over what we “should” do right now? That is what’s really pointless.
“Different people are passionate about different things,” said Pharel. “Let’s just do all of it: Let’s do the anarchist protests, let’s write the free accessible play, let’s have the Sarah Ruhl abortion play that white women are gonna fall in love with.” Pharel then added, for good measure, “Because I’ll tell you what: Conservatives are doing everything.”
I will admit that my skepticism was misplaced. The creators of the wish, which contains dialogues, monologues, and practical information about how to obtain a medication abortion, have made their play free for anyone to download and perform, and people have been taking them up on it. Aside from Austin, the wish will now be performed in Arkansas, Iowa, Indiana, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Illinois, and Nebraska. This is not a moment, it’s a movement.
As the character of Justice smartly remarks in the wish, “No one is coming to save us. Because I think we’re gonna have to save us.”
And what is theatre if not a contingent of “us”? In the post-Roe world, theatre can take a pro-choice stand and help raise money for abortion access. That’s the nuts-and-bolts approach.
Then there are the things that are less tangible but just as important. Theatre’s significant power is its hold on the audience’s emotions: It can provide necessary space for us to grieve, reenergize for the fight, and manifest hope for the future. What can theatre do to aid and abet abortion? Well, why not try to do everything?
In What the Constitution Means to Me, Heidi Schreck’s award-winning play about America’s troubling legacy of violence against women—and the ways our nation’s laws and its highest court have historically enabled that violence—Schreck speaks frankly about the abortion she had when she was in college. In one harrowing scene, she describes accidentally finding herself at a crisis pregnancy center, one of the notorious anti-choice front organizations intended to steer pregnant people away from abortion.
In June—before the Dobbs decision, but after the leak of Justice Alito’s opinion overturning Roe—Schreck performed What the Constitution Means to Me for a one-night benefit performance for the National Network of Abortion Funds, in direct response to the leak, and raised close to $100,000. When she got to the scene where the woman at the anti-choice center told her that an abortion would make her infertile, Schreck went off script to point to her stomach and exclaim, “Twins, bitch!” (Schreck gave birth to twin girls in 2020.)
When Schreck first started performing What the Constitution Means to Me back in 2017, she found that she felt embarrassed when talking about her abortion, even though she was raised in a feminist, pro-choice household.
“My throat sort of closed up a lot” during those performances, she admits. “And then I had these intrusive thoughts, sort of like, ‘You’re oversharing, nobody wants to hear this. People are gonna think you’re asking them to feel sorry for you. This is embarrassing.’” This was in spite of the fact that Schreck did not regret her abortion.
But as she continued to perform the show, Schreck began to hear from people who had also had abortions. They would approach her after a performance, emotional, and thank her for making them feel less alone. They also shared with her their own abortion stories.
To Schreck, this was a sign of just how rare it was to hear an abortion story that wasn’t couched in shame, regret, or tragedy—and in which the woman who had the abortion is thriving afterward.
“Our culture is very afraid of sex and very afraid of talking about bodies,” says Schreck. “We just have not had a great or interesting slate of complicated, nuanced stories about abortion.” It is exactly those stories that Schreck believes are “really crucial right now, to helping the culture shift its perception about what abortion is, and why it matters.”
Schreck has performed What the Constitution Means to Me Off-Broadway and on Broadway. It was also on tour prior to the pandemic, and will finish up the tour in Seattle this fall at Seattle Rep (Sept. 30-Oct. 23). There have also been licensing requests for the show, including from theatres in Florida (which currently bans abortion after 15 weeks). “It’ll be done in a lot of places with these [anti-abortion] laws,” says Schreck. And the theatres that are presenting the show have also proposed “working with reproductive justice organizations in their communities” to create additional programming and to fundraise for abortion access.
Indeed, in a culture where stories about abortion are still rare, theatremakers creating plays that address it are filling a wide gap. As one San Francisco OB-GYN, Dr. Ashley Jeanlus, said on the Financial Diet podcast, a key thing that pro-choice supporters can do to help is simply to say the word abortion, to reduce the stigma associating with the procedure. “There’s research and studies out there that people who are opposed to abortion use the word abortion more than people who are pro-choice,” Dr. Jeanlus said. (There’s even a website called Did Biden Say Abortion Yet to highlight the fact that the president, though he has made statements and taken some executive action in support of reproductive rights, has yet to say the word abortion publicly.)
This stigma around abortion also means that the procedure has been magnified in the minds of many as something intimidating and scary. In one part of the wish, a nurse describes in detail the process of a suction abortion. At the end, she says, “The abortion itself…the suction, start to finish, you know how long that takes? Five to 10 minutes.” An abortion takes less time than a teeth cleaning.
When the creators of the wish hosted a May reading with Brooklyn’s viBe Theater, which provides arts education for young women and nonbinary youth of color, the teens and the adults in the room responded with, “I didn’t know that’s how an abortion worked,” recalls Hehir, who also works as a doula. “A lot of these people, who would consider themselves feminists and liberals, could not tell you how their periods work, could not tell you what an abortion is, how long does it take.” To Hehir, “If this stuff can be explained, it’s not a big mystery. Then it’s less scary.” Having live theatre provide this information can be an act of resistance in itself; South Carolina has proposed a law banning websites that provide abortion information, and experts say many states will try to follow suit.
And this is not just about abortion: The right to terminate a pregnancy is linked to the right to basic reproductive health, which includes care for miscarriages and intended pregnancies—all of which have been negatively affected by abortion bans. Composer and performer Abigail Bengson has had two miscarriages. After her first, she says she felt alone—she didn’t know anyone else who had had a miscarriage. So she went searching for art that addressed it, in hopes of finding words for the turmoil she was feeling, and came up empty.
When La Jolla Playhouse gave her and her husband and frequent collaborator, Shaun Bengson, a commission, the duo decided to create a song cycle about abortion, miscarriages, and bodily autonomy called Sovereignty Hymns. The first three songs in the cycle are available to watch, and the Bengsons intend to add to these and create a full-length theatre piece. To create it, the Bengsons interviewed women who have been personally affected by abortions and crafted original songs based on their accounts.
“We really started to think about, what is the art that we wish we had? and trying to make that art,” says Abigail. In creating the songs and putting them online for anyone to consume, the Bengsons wanted to create “a space of solace and connection, but also shedding any idea of abortion and miscarriage—there’s no shame involved. Privacy is one thing, but secrecy and shame are not needed.”
For Shaun, the songs were also a way to put a human face on an issue that has become so politicized that it has ignored the real people and lives involved. Personal health circumstances, he points out, are too complex to be legislated.
“I feel like our society as a whole has a hard time holding complexity,” he says. “Part of this project was also trying to think: How can we approach a political subject in a way that is human-first, and going from a point of emotional connection and trying to bring it back to people? At the center of it all, it’s just humans doing their best.”
While anti-abortion arguments attempt to flatten the issue into a simple choice between life and death, what these theatre projects about abortion show is that the issue is complex. There are many reasons for needing to terminate a pregnancy, ranging from being too young to have a baby, as in the case of What the Constitution Means to Me, to the fetus not being viable, as in Sovereignty Hymn.
What the works featured in this story have in common is that they don’t try to simplify the issue of abortion. Natalie Moore is a journalist who was inspired to write her first play, The Billboard, after seeing reports about an anti-choice billboard in Dallas targeting the Black community that compared abortion to eugenics. It said, “Abortion is not healthcare. It hurts women and murders their babies.” A nearby health clinic for Black women, the Afiya Center, put up their own rival billboard which read, “Abortion is self-care.”
Moore’s play, which dramatizes those dueling billboards, ran at Chicago’s 16th Street Theater in June and July. Moore points out that she intentionally chose not to focus her play on a woman agonizing over her choice to have an abortion, a typical representation. Instead she set The Billboard at an abortion clinic among women on the front lines of the fight for reproductive justice. Moore wanted to show how the anti-choice movement has turned the Black community against itself, and how politicizing abortion has become a tool to control women’s bodies—with politicans (usually cis men) believing they know better than people with uteruses.
“We don’t have a lot of art that focuses on this from a Black female perspective, or rooted in the Black community,” Moore explains. “I was really interested in exploring ideas of patriarchy, because Black men suffer from it just like white men do. The play is about abortion, but the macro issue is about who gets to speak for community—who gets to speak for other people?”
Some workers from Dallas’s Afiya Center traveled to Chicago to see The Billboard, and according to Moore, they told her she “nailed the issue…It was great sitting next to them and seeing them nod during the show.”
Of course, none of these shows about abortion is likely, nor are they intended, to convince anyone who is anti-choice to change their minds. They don’t need to, since 61 percent of American adults believe abortion should be legal. The Billboard ends with the women at the fictional Black Women’s Health Initiative battle-weary but newly confident in their convictions. As one character remarks, “We need to pull through. Our doors must remain open.”
In a sense, these plays are doing the artistic equivalent of rallying the troops. Because the fight for abortion rights, bodily autonomy, and reproductive justice is shaping up to be a long battle, and many of us may feel demoralized and uncertain. As Schreck puts it, “I’ve talked to people I trust who say that it’s unlikely we’re going to see Roe return in our lifetimes.”
Throughout history, during times of war, musicians have marched alongside soldiers on the battlefield. They served no practical military purpose, but their rhythms and tunes were emotional food for the soldiers, helping them keep one foot in front of the other. For those of us dedicated to this reproductive fight, theatre can fill a similar role. Because we can’t just protest; we also need to eat, drink, laugh, and tell stories.
Hehir compares it to the notion of putting the oxygen mask on yourself before helping someone else. “How do we take the oxygen masks and put them on ourselves—people who have been paying attention, who do care? And how do we take care of ourselves in this moment?” she wonders. That became part of the impetus for the wish: “Could we make a play that could give people a little balm of comfort, in the midst of something unfathomable, and make us all better able to face it?”
What art about abortion can also do right now is pull the issue out of its container of “women’s issues.” Because, as Justice Clarence Thomas made clear in his concurring Dobbs opinion, now that abortion has fallen, other civil rights are on the table.
Tyler Adams is a Ph.D. student at Ohio University (Ohio has banned abortion after six weeks, with no exception for rape or incest, which is why a 10-year-old rape victim had to travel to Indiana for an abortion in June). When the school’s theatre department was considering what to produce in the 2022-23 season, Adams suggested Doctor Vonynich and Her Children by Leanna Keyes (it will play at Ohio University Oct. 20-22). The play, written in 2018, takes place in a post-Roe America where the nation has been segregated into red states that have banned abortion and blue states where abortion is legal. Keyes’s play follows an abortion doctor who covertly travels through the red states to administer abortions.
“The issue of abortion is siloed in a manner that I find to be tremendously unproductive,” says Adams, who as a cis gay man has noticed even liberal men fall into the trap of only caring about issues that directly affect them. “I’ve spoken to other cis men who are married, like myself, and the thing that’s on the forefront of their brain is that gay marriage is at risk. It’s like, no, no, no, no, no! We can’t think that way! We can’t operate in the world in that manner.”
Instead, to Adams, plays about abortion can help make the point that abortion is not just a women’s issue—it’s a human issue, and reproductive rights are linked to other civil rights. “When one of us is unsafe, we are all unsafe,” says Adams. “When one of us is in a precarious position, we are all precarious. We need to find plays that have that at their heart.”
In this instance, the arts cannot be separated from the wider world. And theatre artists cannot segregate themselves between those who live in red states and those who live in blue states—especially because many artists still need to travel for work. After the Dobbs decision was announced, Actors’ Equity Association released a guide for its members on what to do if they’re working in a red state and need an abortion. The team behind the wish is organizing a reproductive healthcare fair in New York City where theatre workers can access information and meet healthcare professionals—not least because many artists are underpaid independent contractors and an abortion is expensive if their health insurance doesn’t cover it.
When I was first researching this article, I had a difficult time finding theatre companies, especially large ones, that were programming plays about abortion. I couldn’t even find any theatre companies that have publicly proclaimed they will help their employees travel for an abortion, if necessary, as some businesses have done.
There are some productions, but not nearly enough given the magnitude of the issue. There’s Alison Leiby’s one-woman account of her own abortion Oh God, a Show About Abortion (running at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York city through Aug. 26), and there’s Abbe Tannenbaum’s What Kind of Woman, based on letters from women who had illegal abortions in pre-Roe America (at Pittsburgh’s off the wall production on Sept. 23, and then in NYC at the Cell on Oct. 19). Of course, one likely reason for this lack is a lag in season programming: We might not see any major productions of an abortion play, at least ones scheduled in reponse to the end of Roe, until the 2023-24 season.
What all the theatremakers I spoke to for this article emphasized to me was that, just as Biden ought to utter the word “abortion,” theatres need to say it too. And audiences are hungry to be in rooms where they can find comfort and motivation. As Margaret Gray wrote recently in the Los Angeles Times, after she saw a production of Lisa Loomer’s Roe at the Fountain Theatre, she was “hoping that it would provide me with some reassuring wisdom or a game plan.” At recent performances of POTUS on Broadway, the line “affordable, safe reproductive healthcare is a basic human right” has earned consistent standing ovations.
As Leanna Keyes puts it bluntly and powerfully, theatre “requires you to build connection and community, which is also part of what you need to do to fight fascism.” Keyes’s play Doctor Vonynich and Her Children may be dystopian, in that it “shows a world in which the fascists won. But what do people do next? How do you get back from that?” And crucially, Keyes’s play, and all of the abortion plays featured in this article, contain one key ingredient: hope.
As Keyes says, in a line that made my heart feel full again: “Even if everything is destroyed, it can all be rebuilt.”
Diep Tran (she/her) is a former senior editor of this magazine. Follow her on Twitter @DiepThought.
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