WIUM Tristates Public Radio

New Play About 'Roe V. Wade' Is A Prism For Looking At The American Divide

Jan 27, 2017
Originally published on January 27, 2017 6:31 am

When the Oregon Shakespeare Festival asked playwright Lisa Loomer if she'd be interested in writing a play about Roe v. Wade, she was understandably skeptical. The 1973 Supreme Court decision, which legalized a woman's right to an abortion, marked a historic moment, but more than 40 years later the issue is far from settled.

Loomer says she wasn't sure Roe v. Wade would make good theater, so she started reading about key players on both sides of the issue. She says, "That, for me, was the story of the divide in American culture. I thought [Roe v. Wade] was a great prism for looking at that divide."

But Loomer knew her play needed to be even-handed. She says, "I wanted people to feel, as they watched the play, that their point of view was represented, if nothing else because that helps people be more open and willing to hear another point of view."

The result, Roe, is currently playing at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. It opens by introducing its two main characters: Norma McCorvey, aka "Jane Roe," the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade, and Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who argued the Roe side of the case. McCorvey was a hard-living, hippie-ish 22-year-old who, in 1969, found herself poor and pregnant for a third time. The play shows her pleading with her doctor to give her an abortion. She tells him she tried to get it done illegally, but the place she went to "looked like a ghost town, like somebody'd moved out of there real fast. There was blood all over the floors, roaches, sheets like filthy rags."

Her doctor's response: "Maybe you should have thought about consequences before you got pregnant for a third time."

Weddington was also in her 20s, but she was a very different person. The daughter of a Methodist minister was one of only 40 women at her Texas law school of 1,600 students. As it happened, she already knew a lot about abortion: She'd had one in Mexico, something she didn't reveal until years later.

In 1970, Weddington and another young female attorney filed a suit in Texas that challenged the state law on behalf of all Texas women seeking an abortion. The Supreme Court heard the case in 1971, and the play puts the audience in the middle of the action. In Roe, the lawyers make their arguments facing the audience, and audio of the real justices' responses (acquired from Cornell University's Legal Information Institute) plays from the back of the theater. Loomer says, "I thought it would be more dramatic than actors onstage, and more daunting for Sarah [Weddington] to face the voices of the real judges."

The case was reargued in 1972, and the Supreme Court didn't rule in favor of Roe until 1973 — far too late for McCorvey to get an abortion. But the play doesn't stop there — it goes on to explore the personal and public battles that ensued. Weddington joined the Texas House of Representatives and continued to speak out for a woman's right to choose; McCorvey worked in abortion clinics, but then reversed her position on the issue and became involved in the anti-abortion rights organization Operation Rescue.

In one scene, an Operation Rescue activist named Ronda tries to talk a woman out of getting an abortion. She explains that when she got pregnant with her daughter, her fiancé wanted her to abort. She says, "I was in my doctor's office and I happened to see a picture in one of those pamphlets they give you. I saw the precious little hands and feet. And no, I may not be a scientist or a medical person, but I have eyes just like you do, and no one, no one could tell me that this was a fetus and not a human being."

Loomer's play is full of nuance and complexity. When one character's account doesn't line up with another's, the characters break the fourth wall to explain the discrepancy. No one is portrayed as flawless or a hero; everyone is human. And that's what theater is for, Loomer says. "I think of the theater as a place where we come together, sit together in the dark, to contemplate an issue from a very, very human point of view."

Roe may be a history play (it's part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's groundbreaking series American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle) but, according to Loomer, so much of what happens in it is still happening right now.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Just about every American adult has heard the names Roe and Wade. Roe v. Wade was the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in the United States. Not so many people know about the real people involved, and now a new play explores their lives. "Roe" was first produced in Oregon and is now at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: When the Oregon Shakespeare Festival asked Lisa Loomer if she'd be interested in writing a play about Roe v. Wade, she was skeptical the court case would make good theater. Then she started reading about key players on both sides of the issue.

LISA LOOMER: And that for me was the story of the divide in American culture. I thought Roe was a great prism for looking at that divide about, why can't we even talk to each other about this issue?

BLAIR: She was also certain her play needed to be evenhanded.

LOOMER: Because I wanted people to feel as they watch the play that their point of view is represented, if nothing else because that helps people be more open and willing to hear another point of view.

BLAIR: The real Jane Roe was a hard living hippie-ish (ph) 22-year-old named Norma McCorvey. In 1969, she was poor and pregnant for a third time. She's played by actress Sarah Bruner. Here, she pleads with her doctor to give her an abortion. She tells him she tried to get it done illegally at a place she'd heard about.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "ROE")

SARAH BRUNER: (As Norma McCorvey) It looked like a ghost town, like somebody had moved out of there real fast. There's blood all over the floors, roaches, sheets like filthy rags, and the smell was...

RICHARD ELMORE: (As Doctor) Yeah. I do understand your predicament, Norma, but maybe you should have thought about consequences before you got pregnant for a third time.

BLAIR: Sarah Weddington was the daughter of a Methodist minister. As it happened, she already knew a lot about abortion. She'd had one in Mexico, something she didn't reveal until years later. She and another attorney challenged the state law on behalf of all Texas women seeking an abortion. Weddington is played by Sarah Jane Agnew.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "ROE")

SARAH JANE AGNEW: (As Sarah Weddington) In the absence of legal, medically safe abortions, women often resort to illegal abortions, which carries risks of death, severe infection and permanent sterility.

BLAIR: The lawyers for the state included Dallas district attorney Henry Wade - the Wade in Roe v. Wade - and attorney Jay Floyd played by Jim Abele.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "ROE")

JIM ABELE: (As Jay Floyd) I think she makes her choice prior to the time she becomes pregnant. That is the time of her choice.

BLAIR: The case was argued before the Supreme Court in 1971. Here, Lisa Loomer uses actual recordings from the appeal. The actors, playing the lawyers, make their arguments facing the audience. From the back of the theater, you hear the voices of the real justices responding. Here's Justice Potter Stewart.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POTTER STEWART: How should that question be decided? Is it a legal question, a constitutional question, a medical question, a philosophical question, a religious question, or what is it?

BLAIR: In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Jane Roe, too late for Norma McCorvey to get an abortion. But the play doesn't stop there, it goes on to explore the fierce battles that ensued. There's the anti-abortion rights organization Operation Rescue. Actress Amy Newman plays Ronda, an activist who tries to talk a woman out of getting an abortion. Ronda explains that when she got pregnant with her daughter, her fiance wanted her to get one.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "ROE")

AMY NEWMAN: (As Ronda) I was in my doctor's office and I happened to see a picture in one of those pamphlets they give you. I saw the precious little hands and feet. And, no, I may not be a scientist or a medical person, but I have eyes just like you do, and no one - no one - could tell me that this was a fetus and not a human being.

BLAIR: There's not enough time here to explain all of the complexities and nuance in the play "Roe." That, says Lisa Loomer, is what the theater's for.

LOOMER: I think of the theater as a place where we come together, sit together in the dark to contemplate an issue from a very, very human point of view.

BLAIR: Lawyer Sarah Weddington went on to join the Texas House of Representatives and became the first woman to serve as general counsel for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She still speaks out for a woman's right to choose. Norma McCorvey, the Jane Roe in the case, reversed her position and joined the anti-abortion movement. Lisa Loomer says even though "Roe" is a history play, so much of what happens in it is happening right now.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.