Why we need political theater

October 16, 2013

Madeline Burrows describes how her play MOM BABY GOD came together.

IN JANUARY 2013, I shaved my legs, put on some lip gloss and registered for the Students for Life of America Conference (SFLA), a real daylong conference held annually outside of Washington, D.C.

I am fairly confident that among the 2,000 attendees, I was the only reproductive justice activist, socialist and playwright there. I was doing research, looking for source material for a play, MOM BABY GOD, about the youth expression of the right-wing movement.

The SFLA conference was one of the many right-wing events I attended throughout 2012 and 2013, from the March for Life (a popular chant was: "We love babies, yes we do! We love babies, how 'bout you?") to a crisis pregnancy center fundraiser and dinner banquet in Boston (don't worry, I didn't pay), to the Youth Rally for Life, where I hung out with a group of 17-year-old boys who talked about how they struggled to remain abstinent in a sex-saturated society--especially when surrounded by so many attractive pro-life girls...

I drank beer at a "pro-life happy hour" with two self-described "feminists for life" who told me about their sex lives with their hot conservative Christian husbands, and I interviewed crisis pregnancy center directors inside their counseling rooms--complete with medically inaccurate fetal development kits and baby clothes pinned to the walls.

Madeline Burrows (center) with the MOM BABY GOD production team
Madeline Burrows (center) with the MOM BABY GOD production team (Joshua Sugiyama)

I had a confusing bonding session with female Christian rock musicians about sexism in the music industry, attended workshops on "sexual purity in your high school" and "how to defund and expose Planned Parenthood," and nearly hit my limit interviewing a priest who awkwardly explained to me the science behind Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin's offensive claim that women can't get pregnant from rape.

I'M NOT afraid to say that MOM BABY GOD is political theater. The product of two years of immersive research, MOM BABY GOD follows Jessica Beth Giffords, a peppy, Justin Bieber-obsessed 15-year-old and zealous anti-abortion video blogger as she navigates the political terrain at the Students for Life of America Conference.

Through Jessica's eyes, MOM BABY GOD explores the ways girls navigate their sexuality amidst a sexually repressive--and sexist--attack on reproductive rights.

In the hour-long solo show, I portray Jessica and six other fictionalized characters--from crisis pregnancy center directors to abstinence-only sex "educators"--all based on real-life right-wing activists. It's equal parts funny, terrifying and very real. Think of it as punk theater. This is not your middle school production of Bye Bye Birdie.

What you can do

To find out more about MOM BABY GOD and to get a ticket for a show in your city, visit the tour website.

And in the spirit of punk, we're taking the show on the road. On October 18, we (myself, production manager Allison Smartt and director Emma Weinstein) start a four-city tour (New York City, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Philly) of the show.

Each show will be followed by post-show discussions to talk not only about the show itself, but also about the escalating attack on abortion rights happening right now. Through the tour, we hope to contribute to rebuilding the movements for feminism and reproductive justice and rearticulate the role theater artists can play in social movements.

We're living in a pretty scary moment for reproductive rights. In 2013 alone, states have already passed 43 restrictions against abortion access.

Despite Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision which legalized abortion on a federal level, 87 percent of U.S. counties lack an abortion provider and services are unaffordable to many women, meaning that women often travel across state lines and make difficult financial sacrifices to afford the procedure.

Anti-abortion legislation in recent years has targeted both women seeking abortions--enforcing medically unnecessary waiting periods and ultrasounds, and even mandating visits to anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers--as well as targeting abortion providers themselves. Mississippi may soon become the first state in the U.S. post-Roe v. Wade to have no abortion clinics at all.

Meanwhile, the anti-abortion movement is attempting to rebrand itself as a feminist and social justice movement, trying to shed its well-deserved reputation of being anti-woman and sexually repressive.

In recent years, they've poured considerable energy and finances into developing training institutes for young right-wing activists. These conferences and training institutes equip young people with debate skills to defend hollow anti-abortion positions and draw deceptively on civil rights rhetoric and history to inform their tactics. And they've been the ones in the streets, winning hearts and minds by protesting outside abortion clinics and shaping the political debate.

WHAT ROLE can artists play in reversing these aggressive right-wing attacks and building a movement for women's liberation and reproductive justice?

There's an idea, even among some leftists, that political art is inherently didactic and uncreative. I used to share this skepticism, assuming all political theater would be limited by the playwright's heavy-handed attempt to make a political point, rather than explore the complexities of what it means to be human.

But theater has historically been a place for political debate, because it is impossible to explore complex human emotions and relationships without seeing the ways political systems shape people's day-to-day lives. Shakespeare's plays engaged in social and political conflict emerging during the birth of capitalism. The New Deal's Federal Theater Project funded theater artists to directly engage with questions of inequality during the Great Depression.

The U.S. has a secret radical theater tradition, just as it has a secret radical labor tradition, and some of the best political theater has been organically connected to social movements themselves.

Some of these political playwrights and performers are more famous: Lorraine Hansbury's A Raisin in the Sun is one of the most well-known plays in American history, though few know that Hansbury was an anti-racist activist and member of the lesbian rights organization the Daughters of Bilitis.

Tony Kushner's Angels in America, Tectonic Theatre Project's The Laramie Project and Anna Deavere Smith's interview-based solo work have all become recognizable works in the mainstream. Others are unknown and barely documented in theater histories. Last fall, I saw LA-based comedian Kristina Wong perform and fell in love with her solo work, which explores depression among Asian-American women and the limitations of lifestyle environmental activism.

THEATER CAN be awesome and radical and inspiring, but most people growing up in the U.S. today never see a single piece of live theater. As veteran stage actor Christopher Plummer (aka Captain von Trapp) recently described, "It's just too goddamned expensive!'' Tickets to live theater often start at $30. And that's considered cheap!

But there's also an issue of who gets to participate in theater. For young people looking to become professional theater artists, the options are pretty limited: Move to New York City and become part of a herd of young people trying to get work, auditioning whenever possible while working two or three jobs to make ends meet.

Theater education itself is increasingly unaffordable, with the cost of higher education skyrocketing and making student debt an almost-universally shared reality for those of us without a trust fund. Arts education in K-12 is often first on the chopping block with budget cuts to public education and the focus on standardized testing. According to the U.S. Department of Education, drama education went from being offered in one in five schools in 2000, to only one in 25 schools in 2010.

Being an artist and trying to survive in this context is pretty scary. Being a political artist and trying to survive is even scarier. Creating political theater cannot be divorced from critiquing our larger political and economic system.

There should be arts funding in this country that makes it possible for artists of all types to fully commit themselves to their work. There's no reason why theater artists or musicians should come to rehearsal exhausted after working at a café for 12 hours straight. You don't do your best work when you're on the brink of exhaustion, and you certainly don't have time to edit scripts, do outreach and plan a tour when you're working an additional full-time job.

Our tour would not have been possible without the very generous donations people made to a Kickstarter campaign. But artists shouldn't have to rely on crowdsourcing to pay for artistic endeavors that could easily be funded with one tiny fraction of the money our government spends on war and occupation abroad.

We're trying to address these issues in practice by offering low-income tickets to make sure that our audiences are not exclusively wealthy, white and over the age of 65. And in an attempt to challenge sexism within the theater world as well as outside of it, we are bringing MOM BABY GOD on tour with a production team composed entirely of 20-something badass queer women who grew up in an era of backlash against women and want to do something about it.

I hope MOM BABY GOD sparks conversations about the attack on reproductive rights, about how girls and women grow up in a highly contradictory climate of hypersexualization and sexual repression. I hope it brings attention to just how rare it is to see work written, performed, and produced by young women. And in the process, I hope MOM BABY GOD can contribute to bringing theater back into its historical role--being a site for ordinary people to come together and digest the world, and then do something to change it.

First published at The Media.

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