Drama over Diatribe: Pro-Choice Advocates Act Out

Date: June 9, 2003
Author: Ann Farmer
Source: Women’s E-News

(WOMENSENEWS)–“Prior to this, I did not feel like I was in a war. That has all changed. And, the war has not stopped.”

Those are the words of Emily Lyons, an abortion-clinic nurse, describing in a speech the residual effects of the morning, in 1998, when she arrived for her nursing duties at an Alabama reproductive health clinic. She was struck by an exploding pipe bomb containing dynamite and nails that tore into both her eyes, created a hole in her abdomen the size of a fist, shattered the bones in her left leg, and caused multiple other severe injuries.

This year those words are being repeated, but not by Lyons herself. They are being declaimed by an actor in “Words of Choice,” an ensemble of performances drawn from the recent, turbulent history of the struggle to defend a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion. Performed in New York in January 2000 and 2003, Chicago in April 2001, the performance will next be staged in Boston on June 12, sponsored by the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge.

“I am often asked what my injuries were,” the audience hears the actor say, drawing from Lyons’ speech. “I usually respond, ‘how much time do you have?’ I have had 12 operations this year, and expect many more.”

Special Resonance

With the choice movement coming under such heavy fire, New York playwright and journalist Cindy Cooper and director Suzanne Bennett are choosing to respond with the weapon at their disposal–words. The words of Lyons and others have been incorporated in the performance piece, in which four actors bring to life excerpts from oral histories, testimonies, articles, speeches, poetry, and other documents that demonstrate the range of facts and emotions women face when confronted with an unwanted pregnancy.

Cooper, author of more than 30 plays, including the oft-produced “How She Played the Game,” says of this effort is to add something of significance to the national discussion.

“What’s lost in the public debate on abortion,” says Cooper, “are the people. The anti-choice advocates try to make women who have abortions into stick figures, into bad women making simple decisions. We have to say, ‘It’s not like that. It’s a tough decision. And there are lots of compelling and important reasons this service needs to be available to women.'”

A Father’s Tale

One of the production’s most riveting performances, according to many who attended a January performance in New York, was when actor Mathew Conlon sat before the audience as a real-life father, barely suppressing his rage and anguish over the gang rape of his daughter after she was abducted while leaving a Fourth of July celebration. He later helped her get an abortion, and says, “no matter what law they may pass and how stringent the penalty, I would do it again.” The New York staging was sponsored by Planned Parenthood of New York in commemoration of the 30-year anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that lifted the ban on abortion.

Testimony about Harrowing Decision

In another scene, a woman testifies before the U.S. Congress in the mid-1990s about the decision she and her doctor made for her to undergo a late-term abortion after discovering that her fetus was riddled with severe fetal anomalies. The woman testified that she and her husband “wanted this baby desperately,” but discovered that if the fetus survived, it would be born with a nonfunctional brain, a malformed heart–and into a life of pain.

Marty Pottenger, a playwright and performance artist who attended the New York event, said, “I was struck throughout by how important it is to hear people’s heart stories in their own words.” In particular, she said she was impressed by diary excerpts from “Jane,” a Chicago-based feminist underground collective from the pre-Roe 1960s that helped women obtain illegal abortions. The excerpts, said Pottenger, “brought back all these personal memories of counseling women in a tiny women’s center in Florida when abortion was still illegal.”

Comic Relief Served on a Taco

“Words of Choice” takes a comic turn when Conlon plays a publicist for a fictional “morning after” product from Taco Bell from a selection originally in “The Onion,” a satire newspaper.. The product is a taco, and according to Conlon’s spoof, it is highly effective at evacuating any pre-fetal tissue. It also comes with a safeguard: In the event of failure, the Taco Bell Corporation guarantees to “hire that person to work for us at $6.25 per hour!” Thus, according to the avid publicist, the dual-use product enables any young, single mother “to provide for herself and her children with uninsured subsistence living.”

And even the anti-choice zealots get a word in, if only to show the extremes to which they will go to stigmatize abortion. An actor strides onstage and, in the frenzied tone of someone hawking exercise equipment on late-night cable TV, begins a fast, earnest pitch for the Haunted House of Hell …

New York-based theater critic Alexis Greene, author of “Women Who Write Plays: Interviews with Contemporary American Dramatists,” applauds the daring behind this production, saying, “I think a lot of women are a little reticent today to write about such hot-topic women’s issues.”

Director Suzanne Bennett, also the artistic associate of the Women’s Project and Productions, a nonprofit theater organization in New York City, agrees it’s rare to see such an outspokenly political production on this topic. “There’s still a lot of fear in speaking out to the general public. The past several decades of violence have made people very cautious.”

Ann Farmer is a freelance writer based in New York City.