Staging Reproductive Freedom in Black Feminist Theatre
Leticia Ridley: Welcome to Daughters of Lorraine, a podcast from your friendly neighborhood Black feminists, exploring the legacies, present, and futures of Black theatre. We are your hosts Leticia Ridley—
Jordan Ealey: And Jordan Ealey. On this podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatre makers worldwide, we discuss Black theatre history, conduct interviews with local and national Black theatre artists, scholars, and practitioners, and discuss plays by Black playwrights that have our minds buzzing.
Today's episode of Daughters of Lorraine contains mentions of sexual violence, bodily harm, and language around abortion care. We encourage you all to proceed with caution when engaging with this episode and to seek out resources on mental wellness and care for those who may need it. Thank you so much. Love, Leticia and Jordan.
Leticia: A draft decision was leaked in early May showing the public that there was plans for the United States Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, a landmark court decision that provided federal protections for abortion care nationwide. Reproductive justice activists, feminists, and other advocates were rightfully incensed and terrified. The overturning of Roe would end access for millions of Americans seeking reproductive healthcare and set back the efforts of feminist activism decades. The draft decision came following years of turmoil on the front of reproductive justice after the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency and the subsequent appointment of extremely right-leaning Supreme Court justices, including Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. And on June 24th, 2022, our worst fears were confirmed: in a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade and ended federal protections for abortions.
Jordan: As devastating as this news was for all birthing people, many Black feminists pointed out the disproportionate effect that this decision will have on Black people in particular. With many of the states who have currently and or are poised to ban or severely restrict abortion rights located in the South, where the majority of Black Americans live; the astronomically high Black maternal mortality rates; and the exorbitant financial cost of obtaining an abortion that will make it virtually inaccessible for low income and working class folks, reproductive justice is a Black feminist issue. So why is it that Black women, girls, femmes, and AFAB people are virtually invisible in the national and international conversation regarding reproductive rights and freedoms? With increased visibility on reproductive justice and freedom through the media, we decided to take a look at how the ongoing fight for bodily autonomy is represented in Black theatre. We look to plays by Black women playwrights and consider what it asks us to question regarding bodily freedoms and Black liberation.
Leticia: Welcome back to another episode of Daughters of Lorraine. I'm Leticia Ridley.
Jordan: And I am Jordan Ealey.
Leticia: Today, we have a really important, critical conversation, timely conversation, around Black reproductive freedom and specifically as it relates to Black theatre. This has been a long tradition within Black theatre. Jordan, as we were doing research for this episode and really thinking about the plays and dramas that we are familiar with, reproductive freedom has been a constant within Black theatre conversations.
Jordan: Well, honestly, the episode obviously is very in tune with the national conversation unfortunately, as we mentioned earlier around the overturning of Roe v. Wade. And I remember when we were having this conversation about what was happening in terms of reproductive justice and freedom in the United States, we both wondered, why isn't there more discussion around reproductive justice within theatre in general, but specifically within Black theatre? I remember part of that interest came from me specifically in thinking about where even in media—given films and television, even literature—how are women of color represented in seeking things like abortions? Or even conversations around other forms of reproductive choice, such as birth control or any sort of contraception. That was really the impetus for us doing this episode; on a purely representational level, how were women of color entering into the conversation? And then specifically, how are Black women entering the conversation? There's often a crisis in the way that seeking abortion care is represented. And so I think that these plays have varying degrees of how they treat people who need reproductive healthcare.
Leticia: Yeah, definitely. And I know when we were thinking about this episode and including this in our season, we did it prior to knowing that Roe v. Wade was actually officially under attack with the leak document. But then in the course of recording in our season, we also were set to record this episode the week that Roe v. Wade was overturned officially. If you are a follower of our podcast, you may have heard our preview to our next episode. We're like, we're going to talk about Black reproductive freedom. And because of one, both the impact of the overturning of Roe v. Wade made on us both individually, and wanting to make sure we can talk about it not as a potential but an actual lived reality, we decided to postpone the episode.
So here we are now with still very heavy hearts thinking about reproductive freedom, abortion care, and literally how our bodies and bodies of birthing people are under attack all across the United States. So when we were setting up this conversation, we wanted to make sure that we thought about who were our interlocutors, who are we being informed by? And as you all know, this is a Black feminist podcast. So some names that we mention, you will probably be familiar with if you listen to our podcast. Starting with the Combahee River Collective who identifies in their really famous statement [that] abortion rights is a significant part of the Black feminist movement.
Jordan: Absolutely, because oftentimes Black women get left out of this conversation around reproductive justice and reproductive healthcare and reproductive freedom. And so to go back to that document, as you said, Leticia, like that is a part of Black feminist politics, is the right to choices around your body, and that includes the right to seek abortion. And we know that there's a very complicated history around, around reproductive healthcare. And we'll talk about that when we get to some of the texts that we're discussing. But one thing that we are both in tune with is the idea of reproductive justice as a Black feminist framework. So, Loretta Ross, who is an absolute titan of reproductive justice movement in the United States, has helped us to see the freedom that comes with the reproductive justice framework.
And part of that is not just about seeking abortions, which obviously that is a huge part of the conversation about reproductive freedom. But it's more so about the right, in general, to have children when and how you choose to and the right to not have children when and how you choose to, along with a lot of other things. So for me, looking at the plays we're going to look at is about, generally, how do we treat bodily autonomy? How do we have the conversation around what it means both to be able to choose what happens to your body and also the access to choose what happens to your body?
So let's go ahead and get into it. One of the plays that we won't get into in depth in this episode, but one of the plays that sparked this conversation between us, Leticia, is one that I feel like is recurring character on this podcast, which is Rachel by Angelina Weld Grimké, I don't know if you wanted to quickly mention some things that we were talking about when it came to that play before we get into depth into the ones you really want to focus on for the episode.
Leticia: Yeah. So Angelina Weld Grimké, Rachel is a play that we celebrate on Daughters of Lorraine. We've talked about it a few times in multiple episodes, starting with when we had our episode on lynching dramas. Specifically as it pertains to this episode, Rachel also had a backlash to it. If you recall, Rachel decides that she does not want to have children, not because she does not desire to be a mother, but because the anti-Blackness and sort of her awareness about how anti-Blackness infringes on the Black family and Black home. She decides that it is better not to bring children into that environment. Some of the criticisms of the play was that they considered Angelina Weld Grimke and Rachel, specifically, her choice as a “race suicide,” her choice to not have kids.
In the play, Grimké uses this phrase that I thought is really compelling with Rachel. Rachel talks about “killing is kinder,” and she's in particular pertaining to there's some flowers that she gets from one of her suitors who wants to marry her. And she takes the flowers and she rips it and stomps it. And he comes back and sees this and he asks, why did you kill the flowers? And she said, “Killing is kinder.” I thought that was such a great parallel to thinking about why Rachel decides not to want kids. And I think it one solidifies the importance of this reproductive freedom conversation that we're having today, and also a great starting point to think about how it reverberates across the other plays that we're going to talk about today.
Jordan: Absolutely. And also, Angelina Weld Grimké, as we noted in the lynching dramas episode, was a queer woman, and Rachel has a lot of perspectives in it that can be read as queer. And one of those choices is for Rachel to not embark on this normative life around family and motherhood. She decides not to biologically reproduce, but she is definitely mothering and parenting in many, many different ways. I look at that as foreshadowing how the fight for reproductive justice was aided heavily by lesbian and queer women throughout history. And so it's one of those, I think, landmark plays in general, but specifically around the conversation around bodily autonomy within Black theatre, especially by Black women playwrights.
So, one of the plays we really want to get into today is They That Sit In Darkness by Mary Burrill. And Mary Burrill was actually one of Angelina Weld Grimké's contemporaries, right? So Leticia, tell us a little bit about They That Sit In Darkness.
Leticia: So, They That Sit In Darkness is a one act play written in 1919 that focuses on the difficulties faced by working class Black families, specifically the Jasper family who have numerous children. And it really follows the story of Melinda Jasper, who is the matriarch of the family. She has had ten kids—eight that are living, two that had died. And her husband is often working. So he really can't help around the house because there is a level of, because he needs to work to make money so that they can afford things. But this is a working class poor family. And essentially throughout the play, Burrill is exploring how women's access to reproductive rights is closely entangled with social systems such as welfare, and how poor folks are not given access to reproductive freedom, and that, how that it continues a generational cycle of staying in poverty.
Melinda Jasper has a daughter who is sixteen I believe in the play, sorry, seventeen in the play. And this is the culminating moment before she's supposed to head off to Tuskegee and really disrupt the cycle of poverty for the family. Burrill, we get this very beautiful moment from Burrill. While Lindy, the daughter, is discussing with her other siblings, I'm going to get this degree. I'm going to come back. I'm going to become a teacher. I'm going to buy you these clothes and new books, and we're going to have food and I'll be able to help so dad can come home early, so he can have dinner with us and spend more time. So we see this hope. This way that education will get him out, but by the end of the play… Spoiler alert, it's a really old play. So I feel like I'm not spoiling anything. I am spoiling something, but by the end of the play, the mother, the matriarch dies, thus preventing Lindy from pursuing her education and breaking this cycle of poverty.
Jordan: Yeah. In this play, I think that idea is also, there's something interesting about the generational responsibility that happened. It falls automatically on Lindy, to step into that mother role and care for her siblings, so there's already this gendered expectation around parenting that is placed onto her, and not once has Lindy really ever expressed the desire to be a mother. What we get is a very ambitious young woman who wants to go to school like you said, and oversee this education and have other career ambitions for her life that are not inclusive—at least that we get in this play, which is only five pages—around education and what she wants to do with her life.
And something in particular that is really important about this play, which is what really sparked our interest in talking about it on today's episode, is that it was published in Birth Control Review, which is the publication run by Margaret Sanger, who was the editor of that. And if you're not familiar with that name, Margaret Sanger, she is the founder of Planned Parenthood. Margaret Sanger was a huge proponent of birth control. And that's really important to say birth control because she actually was against abortion. And she thought that the ideas around birth control being a preventative method of getting pregnant versus ending your pregnancy, those are two different things. So she saw birth control as the stop point before you have to get to that point. Obviously, that is not a viewpoint that Leticia and I are into on this podcast, but I think it's important to say that because that really, really comes up in this play around birth control specifically, is I think what is being discussed in They That Sit In Darkness.
So we get this moment at the end of the play with Melinda when she is dying, where Miss Shaw, what was Miss Shaw's relation to Melinda?
Leticia: The nurse, the nurse that would come visit.
Jordan: Yeah. She was the nurse. With Melinda, she was expressing regret around her life and having all these kids that she's not able to care for. And Miss Shaw says, “God is not punishing you, Melinda. You're punishing yourself by having children every year.” So she starts to push to blame of the system onto Melinda, even though Melinda virtually has no access and no ways to control it. And during that time, birth control was not nationally legal. It wouldn't happen until 1972. Again, we get this matrix of domination that happens there, where it's like Melinda's class position does not allow her to seek out something that would've been able to help her to be able to control her bodily freedom.
Because she didn't have access to something like birth control or even education about birth control, then it becomes this cycle that she's stuck into because she doesn't know what her options are. Miss Shaw also says, “My heart goes out to you, poor people that sit in darkness. Having year after year children that you are physically too weak to bring to the world. Children that you are unable not only to educate, but even to clothe and feed. Melinda, when I took my oath as a nurse, I swore to abide by the laws of the state, and the law forbids me telling you what you have a right to know.” Dang, right?
Leticia: Yeah. Wow. I think Miss Shaw even though she's pushing the blame on Melinda, there's this beautiful moment where she also recognizes the limitations of the state and the state controlling the bodies of birthing people, specifically Melinda, in this case and being like one, I can't tell you what you have a right to know, which I think we can all predict that it's access to reproductive freedom or health, birth control—specifically birth control because of where the context in which this is being published—but also that the state also is implicated in your family being poor. So not only does the state prevent you from having access to birth control that can then prevent you from having so many kids, but then the state does not provide resources to help you clothe and feed your children.
So Miss Shaw, I think, is a great mouthpiece for thinking of how complex and layered this conversation specifically around birth control is. I think that we see, to bring back up what you offered us earlier, Jordan, about the gendered question of this. Melinda also has a son who's also sixteen, the same age as Lindy. He's into music. He wants to play guitar, but he doesn't have the same responsibilities as Lindy does. So when Melinda dies at the end of the play, Lindy takes up this matriarch role. It is not Miles who says, well, I'm going to help wash the clothes or I'm going to help.
There's still a way that this gendered notion of taking care of a family still exists within this paradigm that I thought was really interesting and intriguing because I think it raises larger questions about the nuclear family expectations, gender roles. I was curious—again, this is a very short play—curious about like, okay, so Melinda dies. Lindy is clearly going to step in as the matriarch role. Where does that leave Miles? The dad's not dead. But he's around the house. Is he going to take on some of that domestic labor?
Jordan: Absolutely. This is a lot in such a small amount of time. I think that Mary Burrill is trying to broach those conversations around, like you said, the nuclear family, but also how that can't really work within Black families. Yes, Lindy is saddled with the responsibility of being a mother and having to give up her dreams in order to do that. But again, they're still in this cycle. They're still not able to break out of it. And it just leaves you with these kind of questions about the tragedy of social systems not being put in place in order for you to be able to make your own decisions about your life and your future.
Like not only is, I think, the best thing about this script for me is it's not just Melinda not having access to birth control that is a part of the conversation about reproductive justice, but that Lindy is now a mother without wanting to be. Like she didn't make the choice to be a mother. Her choice to start a family or become a parent is absolutely decided for her because of the conditions of patriarchy, of classism, and of the lack of a social safety net around welfare and other resources around healthcare. So I just say all that to say, this is such an intriguing play. And like far, far, far ahead of its time, I would say, around a lot of these conversations.
Leticia: Yeah, definitely so. And I think you actually create a great segue to our next play, In the Blood by Suzan-Lori Parks, that I'm sure if you are a fan, critic, or scholar of Black theatre that you know who Suzan-Lori Parks is.
Jordan: I don't know. Suzan-Lori Parks, she's really this indie playwright. I'm not sure if a lot of people have heard of her or really explored her work before. No, I'm just kidding. She's obviously a legend of Black theatre. First Black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. But this particular… I'm not even sure that we've actually really went into depth of one of her plays before on the podcast.
Leticia: No, it's actually our first time. Wow. That must be a record.
Jordan: I know. Yeah, I mean, we've done all the others—August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry. It was time. But we have In The Blood by Suzan Lori Parks. Premiered at the Public Theater, New York Shakespeare Festival in November of 1999. This is really the nineties when Suzan Lori Parks, I feel like a lot of her plays were dealing a lot with, with questions around Black womanhood. Because Venus was what, 1996? So a couple of years prior to this where she—I'm not saying that there's like a linear thread between Venus and In the Blood—but I think that there were questions that she had around bodily autonomy that was happening in her mind that could create the conditions for making something like In the Blood. But In the Blood is also a conversation, an adaptation, a sampling, a riffing, a signifying of The Scarlet Letter.
Obviously we're not going to rehash the entire plot of this story, but essentially all you need to know is that The Scarlet Letter is about a young woman named Hester Prynne who, after having an affair with I believe the Reverend of her small town, is forced to wear a scarlet “A” on her body to constantly shame her for the adultery that happened. And also she becomes pregnant from that also. So, like, another way of publicly shaming her for what they deem her to be an impure woman, et cetera, et cetera. Just general patriarchy is what you need to get from this short story. Instead of in, I don't know, what is it, eighteenth century early America, instead we have In the Blood taking place in the here and now. And obviously the characters are, well, the character of Hester is a Black woman, and she has five children. And all of them, I believe all of them have different fathers.
So Leticia, tell us a little bit about In the Blood and I guess what you are seeing as its contribution to our topics for today.
Leticia: Yeah. I think first thing I want to note, I think that it's really important that Suzan-Lori Parks places the play in the here and now. So it places in a current contemporary conversation. So when I was rereading the play, I was like, man, how would this play hit now that Roe V. Wade has been overturned? What was some of the larger conversations? Similar to Mary Burrill's play, we are with a family that is living in poverty. For Hester and her children, it's much worse. They don't actually have a physical home. They live under a bridge. Hester is uneducated. So throughout the play, we see Jabber, who is her oldest, trying to teach her to spell. So she's learning her letters is how Suzan-Lori Parks frames it. But she hasn't gotten past the letter A. Again, hearkening back to The Scarlet Letter.
And throughout the play, there's a prologue and an epilogue, and it uses this common refrain that I'm going to share with you all, not in its entirety, but I think it's really important to set up the framing of how we're understanding Hester and in this conversation of reproductive freedom that I think is really central to understanding In the Blood. And it goes, "There she is. Who does she think she is? The nerve that some people have. Shouldn't have it if you can't afford it. And you know she can't. She don't got no skill, 'cept one. Just plain stupid, if you ask me. Ain't no smart woman got five bastards and not a penny to her name. Something's got to be done to stop this sort of thing, because I'll be damned if she going to live off me."
And again, that's an abbreviated version of a much longer prologue and epilogue, but I think it frames this conversation of, one, that this chorus of people—it just says all in the script—this chorus of people, one, is framing Hester as having all these children as a problem, framing her as someone who is living off of the social systems that exist, AKA Welfare, which is a character in the play, and that their tax paying money is going to supporting her desire to have sex with multiple people. And then three, that something must be done about this loose woman Hester. And this is where we get into I think longer legacies of sterilization of Black women from having children, of hysterectomies, forced hysterectomies. And I think what Suzan-Lori Parks does brilliantly in this conversation is that she implicates every other character, not the children, but every other character.
So we have the doctor who's like, I'm recommending to your caseworker that you get a hysterectomy. We have the Reverend who is the father of her youngest child who is rising in his pastoral career about to build him a church, but he doesn't want to support his child with child support even though he's preaching this gospel of like we need to help those that are in need. At the same time, he's sort of like—
Jordan: The deadbeat dad.
Leticia: Yeah, he's a deadbeat dad, and then also asking for sexual favors from Hester still. Then we have the Welfare who chastises Hester for living on the streets, saying that they're providing services to her but she's not actually taking advantage of them, or “You can go to this shelter,” and she's like, well I go to the shelter and my kids get touched. There's a level, it's either, do my children get sexually assaulted at the shelter or do we live under the bridge where I know that's not going to be an issue? Also, the welfare lady who's a Black lady ends up having a threesome with Hester and her husband. Also, the doctor also prior had sex with Hester. So all of these characters have had sex with Hester.
And then we finally have Chili, which is Jabber's father, who is the oldest child of Hester, who comes back. His whole story is he's coming back to find his first love and his child, and actually really do right by Hester. But after discovering that she has had four other children decides that, wait a minute, I didn't sign up for this. I'm backing out. Again, we see this conversations of being like, oh, the Welfare has my name so they can garnish my wages? Oh, they ain't going to find me. I changed my name. This sort of like distancing from any responsibility. And this drives Hester mad to a certain extent where she ends up killing Jabber her oldest, gets imprisoned, and then at the end of the play is forced to have a hysterectomy.
Jordan: I believe she's also, I'm not sure if it's specified, but she's incarcerated during that time right? And so I think that also speaks to that larger legacy of forced sterilization specifically for women of color who are incarcerated, especially Black and Indigenous women. So that wrestles with that really, really tough history as well. I also want to note that too, she has a friend Amiga Gringa, which I believe, I don't know Spanish, but I'm pretty sure that just means “white friend.”
Leticia: This character is white. She mentions it because her whole thing with Hester is that she wants her to make a sex tape with her so that they can make a lot of money. Yeah.
Jordan: Right. Exactly. The literal name. Amiga Gringa.
Leticia: One thing that Suzan-Lori Parks would do is give you a very literal meaning of something to be like, I just want to let you know that I'm being very clear about who this is.
Jordan: Like when I was reading that, I was like, not Amiga Gringa, that's hilarious. But what I think also, something that is so, so interesting is the ways that, like you said, Suzan Lori Parks implicates everybody in the narrative. Every single person has failed Hester throughout this entire play in many different ways. People who should have been helping her, like Welfare. Welfare should be helping her. This is a social safety net put in place, but instead screws her. Like literally, but also figuratively. And with the Reverend, she's supposed to be, Suzan-Lori Parks is indicting religious indoctrination here, where it's like, you're supposed to be a Christian. You're supposed to be giving and generous. And like you said, he is on the outside projecting this image and probably even does some charity work through his ministry.
But like personally and privately, he is absolutely taking advantage of this woman who is in a very, extremely precarious position. Oftentimes, the characters are also referring to like how titillated they are by Hester. That is such a repeated idea around this woman the entire time. It's just like I know I shouldn't, because she's disgusting, but I just can't help myself because I'm just so... And it's just like this idea that she is available to everybody. And I think Suzan-Lori Parks is also again pointing to a larger history of how Black women are read as always sexually available to people, no matter what.
And I do think it's interesting that Welfare is also represented as a Black woman. What did you make of that? Obviously, we've read this play so many times, but that always stops me in my tracks when I remember that Welfare is supposed to be a Black woman.
Leticia: Yeah. I'm speaking in draft, but I think that it implicates Black women who work for social systems. And particularly, I think it creates a class conversation, because welfare has this, as my grandma would say, good government job. That it has a pension, your healthcare, allows her to live somewhat a comfortable lifestyle. And in her monologue where she's talking about her relationship with Hester, she keeps mentioning, but I'm a wife, but I'm a wife. And I think that's how she sees the difference between Hester and her. And that class position of being like, well that is a particular Black woman that is harmful to the perception of Black women. Even though, like you said, she's also someone who's very titillated by Hester. And her sexual and encounter with her is something that she fondly remembers. And was like, well, it only happened once, but she thoroughly enjoyed it alongside her husband.
So I think it's meant to create a class conversation about reproductive freedom, about Black women's positions on a class line on this issue potentially. And think about how maybe middle class women frown upon or look down upon Black women who are poor. And I think of like Cathy Cohen's politics of deviance. And I think Hester very much could be read through that prism of… I am using my body, my physical body to have sex with these people, one, because I actually have some sort of affection towards some of these people, AKA Chili, her first love, that sort of like perpetuated this cycle because he disappeared on her.
But then it becomes this economic tool for her, or so she thinks, that can create a better life for herself and her children. So I want to make sure that we're not framing Hester as someone who is deviant for deviance’s sake, but actually using it as a political system to have some mobility within her life. And also to say that doesn't mean that we should look down at Hester for having any sexual appetite at all. And I think that Suzan-Lori Parks is very clear that we're not going to shame Hester for wanting to have sex.
Jordan: Right. And that's another thing. Oftentimes, when people talk about low-income or poor people, there is a lack of… there's understandings within like middle class, upper class, and rich people that poor people are not allowed to enjoy anything. And that can be sex, but that can also be other material items. The horrible conversations you see on Twitter of like, oh, “why is this poor person buying tennis shoes? Or why is this poor person using their EBT card to get a steak?” Whatever it might be, there's this idea that poor people are not allowed to experience pleasure. And so, Suzan-Lori Parks creates not just like a blanket political commentary around welfare systems and the lack of social safety nets, but also around a Black woman who, yeah, she's a mother and yes, she is impoverished.
And yes, she is extremely down on life because of the circumstances that have been created. But also she likes to have sex and she does have sex, and she will. And she can experience simultaneously this pleasure and this desire while also understanding that her positionality is stopping her from accessing basic life needs. Like it's not a binary conversation. She's this, so she doesn't get to do this; and she's that, so she doesn't get to do that. But rather it's both. And I also wanted to point out too, in those repeated refrain that you read at the beginning too, when they say shouldn't have had any if you can't afford them. So this is a repeated thing that happens also when we talk about reproductive justice is like, well, if you can't afford to have a baby, then you shouldn't be having babies.
And while I understand that the financial lift of having children is a reality, and that is often a reason why people may choose to end their pregnancies or may choose to not be parents or what have you, but it does slide into like eugenics a little bit when it's like, “If you're poor, then you shouldn't be able to have kids.” And that is a very, like I said, eugenics point that is brought up and is part of the reason why too someone like Margaret Sanger is a figure that has a very complex history when it comes to Black communities because of her views on eugenics and who should and shouldn't be able to have kids. That's like when her views got to way extreme points.
But I say all that to say is that Suzan-Lori Parks creates this really nuanced picture around—it's horrifying, like so many things that happen in this play are horrifying—but it's also extremely nuanced picture around the search for bodily autonomy from Hester throughout the play. And ultimately, we see her succumbing to the system because of what it has created for her. But what we do get is like, I don't know, created this like sympathetic journey that we get on is like at every turn, this woman has failed by literally everyone around her and except for her kids.
Leticia: Absolutely, absolutely. Totally failed by everyone around her besides her kids, who are also suffering throughout the play. I think if I know anything from my own lived experience it’s that social systems for poor and working class people are insufficient in actually caring for them. I think Suzan-Lori Parks really captures all these things in place for Hester to be taken care of is actually just another harmful way to remind her that she is less than in the eyes of the state and to the many people around her.
When that happens, it leads us to think about Kia Corthron's Come Down Burning. So if these social systems are in place and they continue to fail us, what happens when a community or a family takes reproductive health and freedom in their own hands and, one, both of the liberatory possibilities of it, but also the potential harm that can come from an in-home abortion because of the lack of resources and access.
Before we jump into this play, Come Down Burning by Kia Corthron, I just want to say the first time I read this play, Jordan, you were there. It was in a class with our advisor, Dr. Faedra Chatard Carpenter and we were in Contemporary Black Drama class. And you, me, and Faedra all started crying because while this play is like deeply sad, but just also deeply beautiful and moving the way that these women care for each other and the way the play ends. And it has one of my favorite lines of all time of like “You carried me, you carried me good. It was smooth ride. Didn't feel one bump.” But again, you all don't know what that means if you haven't read the play. So Jordan, can you give us a brief insight into Come Down Burning?
Jordan: Yes. Kia Corthron also, we think she is a vastly understudied and underproduced playwright. So one, any artistic directors, literary managers, educators, anyone who is listening to this: please produce everything Kia Corthron's ever written. Thank you. Secondly, this play, what was presented originally in January of 1993 as a part of a workshop production at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut. So the play is set in Appalachia. So Skoolie and Tee are sisters. Skoolie is physically disabled, but she does not have a wheelchair. She instead has a makeshift cart that she uses to be able to roll herself around. Skoolie also lives on a mountain. So because she does not have use of her legs, she cannot comfortably get up and down the mountain. So she is pretty much confined to this geographic space. Her sister Tee is a mother of, how many children does Tee have? Two kids right? Two kids I believe.
Leticia: Three kids that are living, two kids that had passed.
Jordan: So Tee is a mother to multiple children. She's also currently pregnant again and is not necessarily in contact with any of the children's fathers. Skoolie in addition to being the kind of support to Tee's children, Skoolie is also the community's abortion provider. So she provides in-home abortions to folks in the community who need them because they, again, because they live in a mountain, there's not a Planned Parenthood on the mountain. So they don't have that kind of access to that care that they need. Bink, who is one of the characters of the play is Skoolie's I believe childhood friend, also requests an abortion from her, et cetera, cetera. So another major character in the play is Tee's daughter, Evie. Evie is struggling at school because her teacher's racist. Her teacher is racist and is treating Evie badly.
Evie tells Skoolie and Tee about it. And Tee goes down there with the intention of being able to handle the situation, but is unable to really control it. And Evie is still receiving this kind of abuse from her teacher. Skoolie is like, well, maybe if I go down there and I'm able to talk to her, and this is where that beautiful line that Leticia shared at the top of this segment comes in is where Tee actually volunteers to carry Skoolie down the mountain to the school so that Skoolie can talk to Evie’s teacher. And more things transpire within the play. But eventually Tee, because she figures that she's unable to care for another child, actually elects to give herself an home abortion, because she doesn't want to have to depend on Skoolie for everything anymore as she has been the entire time.
And so she's like, look, I can do this one thing. I can do it. Because of her, I guess, inexperience with being able to provide this service, she actually succumbs to her injuries, or what happens in this botched abortion. At the end of the play, we get that beautiful moment between Skoolie and Tee, where Skoolie remarks that Tee carrying her down the mountain was the smoothest ride. There was no bumps.
And honestly, we just like, yes, we want to talk about reproductive, how this play talks about reproductive healthcare, but just the love between these women in this play is such a driving point for why this play works so well because you don't just get the… I've watched so many videos of Kia Corthron talking about how much research she puts into her plays. She considers herself to be a political playwright. And if you read her other works, you will definitely see that. And she does all this research and all of these facts, but what theatre does so well is that it pulls at your heart, and you get all of this stuff about healthcare and reproductive justice and freedom. But you also just get this beautiful play about family and sisterhood and motherhood. It's just beautiful.
Leticia: Yeah, absolutely beautiful. And I think we have one, what we don't get perhaps in In the Blood and in Mary Burrill's play, is the connection between disability rights and reproductive rights as like interconnected. Skoolie, who does not have use of her legs because she had an accident when she was a young child where she fell out of a tree with Bink. Bink was fine, but she became paralyzed and then she had to learn to navigate. They're also poor, working class. So this is not a family that necessarily has like a lot of money to afford a wheelchair. And I think even Skoolie refrains at one point, like, I don't want a wheelchair. I'm good with my cart. The set is described, like the refrigerator, the stove, which is actually really just a hot plate. It's all on the floor level.
So the environment, the lived environment is one that is made for Skoolie to be able to navigate. The only place that she goes is across the street to the grocery store and back in her house. But Skoolie is the main provider, not only for Tee and her children, but also for the community. She also does hair. So we get these beautiful moments where she's doing the hair of Bink and the children. She's looking after Tee's youngest who doesn't want to breastfeed anymore. And her brother takes the bottle, which again, creates some anxiety for Tee, because she's really trying to force her son to breastfeed, but he doesn't want it. What Kia Corthron does so well, like you said, is creating this community of care for one another. Even in the tension that clearly exists between all the different characters. Tee's not happy that she has to rely on Skoolie to go to the school a second time to make sure that her daughter's going to be okay and not get punished by the teacher for mentioning that the teacher scratched her after grabbing her.
But at the end of the play, we get this beautiful moment where we see them. We see this sisterhood, this level of care, this level of love for one another. And also just like Tee knowing that her children would be looked after by Skoolie and both the power of Skoolie who does perform an abortion during the play successfully and has for a long period of time, because like, “Oh, you've done this for me before. Everything's going to be good. It's safe.” I'm doing quote quotes because you all can't see that. It's relatively safe because Skoolie has a level of knowledge that makes it safe. But Tee who does not have this long, longer knowledge, even though sometimes she assists Skoolie, it becomes dangerous. And I think in our contemporary conversation, this is something that we have to think about now. Now that Roe v. Wade is overturned. People don't stop getting abortions just because you tell them they can't get abortions.
Jordan: Yeah, I was going to say, it opens up the conversation that's already existed even when Roe v. Wade was in place around access. Access is not equitable. Even with the federal protections around abortion care, it didn't mean that people were able to like go to clinics. So Roe v. Wade was a court decision made in 1973. This play came out in 1993. So Kia Corthron probably wrote this at some point in the years prior to that. And even within that conversation, it's not like, again, like I said earlier, it's not like they could just go to Planned Parenthood. They don't have anything that's probably near them being where they are geographically located. And that's something that a lot of reproductive justice scholars and activists have pointed out, is that even with Roe v. Wade, there was not equitable access to abortions for people who needed them.
So if you're living somewhere like Appalachia or you're living like in the middle of nowhere in a rural part of the state, you are not automatically—just because abortion may be legal, the nearest clinic may be five hours away. So you have to drive there to do that work and you have to take off work and can you afford to take off work? And who's going to watch your other kids? Because statistically speaking, people who seek abortions already have children. I don't want to get on the soap box here, but I think that Kia Corthron’s play is already pointing to the inequitable access. This was a play that was written when Roe v. Wade was still the law of the land. And so, but even within that, it didn't mean that everyone was guaranteed the same amount of protection or the same amount of access, even if they were federally protected to be able to seek one.
So like you said, it becomes a self-determination of the people in this community that's like, well, we just have to take matters into our own hands. And unfortunately that does result in someone like Tee because of that lack of experience, what happens to her is just absolute tragic. And no point either is Skoolie ever made to feel bad or as an inspiration for having a disability. Her disability is a fact of her life. It is not something that is hyper-spectacularized in a way that disabled characters are represented within a lot of spaces. And so I really appreciate the way that Skoolie is characterized. She is by far the character that is taking on the most in this play.
Leticia: Yeah, definitely. I think your comment about access is critically important. Even with something like Roe v. Wade, it had its limitations geographically and in other ways. And I think that gets us to something like Abortion Road Trip by Rachel Lynett, a playwright I wasn't familiar with, but that you brought to my attention as something that we should look at for this episode. It's a more contemporary example of a play that's been recently written about reproductive freedom in health, and also one I would argue most explicitly about abortion itself. Can you tell us a bit about Abortion Road Trip?
Jordan: Yeah. Rachel Lynett's a playwright that I came into. I can't remember how exactly I came to know her work, but I have seen a couple of readings of her plays, a friend of mine, Ibi Owolabi directed a reading for her that I got to see I think maybe a year ago or so. So I'm really intrigued by her work. And I remember coming across Abortion Road Trip because of my own interest in seeing how abortion is represented within theatre long before this episode and long before the conversation about Roe v. Wade happened, I was really interested in this. And I came across this play and the production we saw happened in 2017, I believe the play was also written around that time. And we saw a production by Theatre Prometheus, which is a local theatre company that actually Leticia and I got to do a little bit of work with last year, actually around talking about I think one of the playwrights we talked about in this episode, Mary Burrill. And so Theatre Prometheus is a local DC theatre company that focuses on works by marginalized theatre artists.
And in this play, which features three women literally going on an abortion road trip as the title says. So we have Minnie and Lexa who are sisters who enlist the help of the driver whose name we never know throughout the play, on a trip from San Antonio, Texas to New Mexico in order for Lexa to get an abortion. And while on this journey, they each discuss their emotional baggage that comes from just existing as a person in the world. But specifically related that we find out, spoiler alert, that each one of them has had an abortion, or Lexa's in the process of getting one, but we found out that Minnie has had one and also the driver has also had one. And so, yeah, this play, again, like you said, is absolutely our most contemporary example of this. Still prior to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, but it's undoubtedly extremely relevant to the conversations that's happening. We get a lot here.
Leticia: We definitely get a lot here. And I think what perhaps makes this play critically different besides just like time period of the play is that this I think is firmly a comedy. Like it really makes, I don't want to say makes light of, but it has a lightness to this conversation around reproductive freedom and specifically abortion that I think invites people to have the conversation. And we have characters in the play that are firmly against abortion. The best friend of Lexa and the girlfriend of Minnie. Minnie Is a Black character and Lexa—
Jordan: As far as we know, in terms of this production, since we haven't seen the script.
Leticia: Minnie and Lexa have this relationship with Quinn who is the mouthpiece for pro-life.
Jordan: I would say I would call them anti-abortion.
Leticia: Yes. Mean when we say, say what we mean, shout out Dr. Faedra Chatard Carpenter. Anti-abortion, which is interesting, that Quinn is also a lesbian. So I think that was a really interesting, compelling choice to make the face of anti-abortion a lesbian white character, at least for this production, that I think was really compelling. And also, I think it's really masterful how Lynett creates these three different experiences of abortion. So Minnie is sexually assaulted. Lexa just had an accident with her boyfriend. And then the driver is an alcoholic who got really drunk and slept a couple times with their coworker and ended up getting pregnant. It's also important to note that the driver is also a lesbian who is married to a woman and their alcoholism also causes rifts within their relationship to their then girlfriend but now wife when we enter the play that I think really gives us a really dynamic view of the different reasons and different choices and different circumstances that can lead people to deciding to get an abortion.
Jordan: Yeah, I think actually that is the most compelling part of this play for me is that again, a lot of the conversation around abortion can sometimes paint it as, and even with the other plays we've discussed, like it can also paint it as this moral decision or as if there's only a couple of justified reasons to seek an abortion and anything else is frivolous or not good or makes you a bad person. And we see these conversations happen in the play. But what I love is that there is not necessarily a moral judgment as to whose reason is the most compelling reason to get an abortion.
Again, in the national conversation, I see people who would say that they pro-choice, will say like, “but nobody wants, really wants, an abortion. Nobody really wants that, but like, you have to get it sometimes.” And the thing that I think this play does well, and I think the driver actually says at some point, is you actually don't need a reason. Like, it doesn't need to be justified. If you want one or need one, you should be able to get one. That's really the end of the story. And so like you said, there's these very different situations in which all of these women in this play, but people in general find themselves pregnant and wanting to end their pregnancy for whatever reason they want to. Not necessarily only because it happened in something that's horrific, but because the person wanted to, and it is their body and their choice to do so. I also think that, like you said, because two of the three characters that we are following are queer, I think that there's something very compelling to me about how queerness enters the conversation.
In particular, the character of Quinn being our kind of anti-abortion mouthpiece is a fascinating choice. Because I think contemporarily, we are starting to expand our language around how we discuss reproductive justice and freedom. And a lot of that conversation includes how we talk about the multiple genders that are being affected by the restriction of abortion rights or abortion care in the United States and globally. And so I think, again, what Abortion Road Trip also really creates is that is the ever-expanding ideas around who could get pregnant, the type of bodies that can get pregnant, and also that it doesn't have to be dire circumstances. So we look at these other plays that we've talked about, They That Sit In Darkness, Come Down Burning, In The Blood.
These are hyper-spectacularized events to where these women find themselves in situations where they either should have been able to access reproductive care or need to seek out reproductive care, versus Abortion Road Trip. It's pretty quotidian. Like it treats abortion as this kind of quotidian experience that a lot of people have. And even the idea that all three of them either have gotten or are getting an abortion is a really important point because it's like that saying that's going around for people in support of abortion care, which is like, everyone knows someone who's had an abortion. Like, it's normal.
Leticia: Yeah. I think that's a really important aspect of what Abortion Road Trip is bringing to this conversation. And also I think reflecting at least in my circles and probably your circles, Jordan, like you said, the quotidian-ness of someone having, or knowing someone who has had an abortion. And I really think this play captures this. I think that all of these four plays do a great, one, illustrate how reproductive freedom and health has been a constant conversation within theatre, but also Black theatre at large. This is not a new conversation that theatre's just now entering, but we actually see a lineage and a legacy of where this is actually a primary concern of Black playwrights. I think it was really important and enlightening for me to even revisit these plays with the specific focus of thinking about reproductive freedom in health as a primary concern of these works.
There's other things that happens in them that we could talk about, but that this is a core element of all the plays that we discussed today. And we highly, highly recommend it to all of our listeners to revisit these plays if you've already read them. If you only read one or you and you haven't heard of the others, please, please, please support these playwrights, teach their work, read these plays, see these plays if they go up near you. But I really enjoyed our conversation of thinking about these plays, and yeah.
Jordan: So you already know we would never leave you all in the dust when it comes to material. We want you to have this conversation. Before we get into that, I just want to emphatically say, please support reproductive justice activists in your area. Please donate to your local abortion fund and just keep abreast of the national conversation around what's happening with reproductive freedom. We at Daughters of Lorraine unequivocally support anyone's right to choose what happens to their bodies. And I would be remiss if I did not encourage that on the podcast. But we have a couple of other plays that we would like you all to consider. One of those is Fucking A by Suzan Lori Parks, which is the sister play to In the Blood. It just continues on in this conversation about this world. Please, please read it. And the other is Behind the Sheet by Charly Evon Simpson. Behind the Sheet talks about the Black women who were exploited in the name of the modern gynecology.
So everything that we get from the speculum to other forms of a gynecological care is because the exploitation of Black women and Charly Evon Simpon’s play explores that. So please, please, please read that. And then in lieu of critical material that focuses specifically on theatre and performance, we thought we'd just provide you some resources to think about the intersections between Black liberation, Black feminism, and reproductive justice. So one such book is Reproductive Justice: An Introduction by Loretta Ross and Rickie Solinger. Please read that. It is an extraordinary primer on the idea of reproductive justice and how it has developed throughout history written by one of the greats and titans of that movement. And then the article, “How Black Feminists Define Abortion Rights” by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and “Supreme Court Ruling Overturning Abortion Reaffirms the Role of Reproductive Justice and Black Liberation” by Paris Hatcher. Again, please continue to have the conversations around reproductive justice and freedom in your life and support the work of people on the ground who are organizing to make sure that everyone gets the care and access that they need.
Leticia: I think that is a great note to finish on. Thank you again for joining us for another episode of your favorite podcast, Daughters of Lorraine.
Jordan: We know that this was not as fun of a topic, but we find it important to continue to engage in the conversation because knowledge is power. All right, talk to y'all next time.
Leticia: This has been another episode of Daughters of Lorraine. We're your hosts, Leticia Ridley—
Jordan: And Jordan Ealey. On our next episode, we're discussing the life and legacy of solo performer and playwright Robbie McCauley. In the meantime, if you're looking to connect with us, please follow us on Twitter @dolorrainepod. You can also email us at [email protected] for further contact.
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