When Oregon Shakespeare Festival commissioned playwright Lisa Loomer to write a play about a moment of change in American history for their American Revolutions Cycle, she chose Roe v. Wade.
“At first, I was hesitant because I did not want to write about a court case,” Loomer told Ms. “My plays are not docudrama, or even terribly realistic–there’s usually a theatricality to them in terms of style. But I started to do research, and, once I had a sense of how the stories of the lawyer and the plaintiff involved in Roe began to … diverge … after the case, I started to see how a play called Roe might begin to look at the larger cultural divide in this country for which this issue is a lightning rod.”
The play, called simply “Roe,” begins just before Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who will argue the case before the Supreme Court, meets Norma McCorvey, the soon-to-be plaintiff Jane Roe. It follows them through the rise of the pro-choice and anti-choice movements and into the present—where the right to abortion is still not as sound as the 27-year-old Weddington who brought the suit hoped it would be. Though some might question Loomer’s decision to pit two women against one another in telling a story of women’s rights, her play adheres to history in revealing the conflicts that existed between these two central figures—and thankfully, the conflict between them does not overwhelm the chronicling of this landmark feminist event.
Julie Felise Dubiner, Associate Director of the Revolutions project, rightly praised Loomer’s signature blend of politics and drama. “I don’t think Lisa Loomer could have written a different play about these two women and this story,” she said, “much less the issue of abortion and reproductive rights itself.”
In the process of writing the play, Loomer certainly did her research. In an interview in the magazine, Prologue, Loomer says the play draws on books by McCorvey and Weddington and that she traveled to the University of Texas at Austin to attend women’s studies classes. In fact, the level of detail in a play whose subject matter spans 45 years is quite impressive: It stretches from the minute decisions that shaped Roe as a historic case, illustrates the rise of anti-choice extremism, and even connects to the ongoing contemporary fight to uphold abortion access.
The play isn’t the only way audience and community members at Oregon Shakespeare Festival are learning about Roe v. Wade and abortion. The theater issues about 20,000 hard copy issues of their magazine Prologue to subscribers. Another magazine, Illuminations, is given free to approximately 4,000 members at the Donor level and above and is also sold all season long at the Tudor Guild Gift Shop. Both of these publications as well as the Playbill provide different kinds of background on McCorvey, Weddington, the case and the history of abortion through the present.
Loomer finds a way, without slowing down the action or becoming didactic, to emphasize the way Roe cemented women’s progress but also fell short of protecting abortion rights from right-wing attacks. All of this is laid out in rapid-fire dialogue in a short scene in which Weddington is told of the components of the decision, responding presciently to what they portend as she both bemoans and celebrates the news. In doing so, Loomer links Roe and the historic second-wave fight for safe and legal abortion to today’s ongoing fight to protect those gains—and what steps must come next.
“Roe” is also purposefully intersectional. In its 2.5-hour running time, the play never lets white feminists off the hook for continually erasing the circumstances of poor women and women of color from their agendas. Though Weddington’s character would have you believe that the central conflict between her and McCorvey is one of commitment to the truth, the play makes clear that their class difference is what divides them. Weddington’s peers in the white, second-wave feminist movement are even sidelined in favor of characters like McCorvey’s long-time lesbian partner, Connie Gonzalez—“an even handed Tex Mex dyke with enormous patience and few words”—as well as Afro-Latina and African American undergrads and graduates, famed Black feminist Flo Kennedy and other women of color.
Though the play is not inflammatory, the topic itself is volatile, so the theater wanted to be prepared for anything. They sought and received a grant from the General William Mayer Foundation to bring in a trainer to talk to everyone who is the public face of the show about how to deal with patrons if they have a bad, or merely big, reaction. The trainer, Anne Kellog, helped the theater put protocols in place for protestors and interruptions, but thus far, they haven’t had to use them.
Dubiner credits the play itself for that:
I think we’re not getting as much pushback as we braced for because the audience is not getting a pro-choice screed, they are getting a story. Part of what it makes it feminist is that Lisa has very actively written a play that doesn’t want to be a part of that polarization, it wants to be a part of a conversation. It says, ‘I want to talk to you about this! I don’t want to just yell and come in and be comforted in my own opinion! I want to be a part of a conversation with you!’
“Roe” runs through October 29 at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, from January 12 – February 29, 2017 at Arena Stage in D.C, and from March 3 – April 2, 2017 at Berkeley Rep in Berkeley.