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“Roe” Versus Women, Mothers, Others, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre

“Roe” Versus Women, Mothers, Others, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Lisa Loomer Rocks the Boat: Who Chooses?

by Svea Vikander

Lisa Loomer’s “Roe” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre tells the story of the landmark Supreme Court abortion case Roe versus Wade (1973) and the women who fought for it. The play draws us into the tension of competing narratives: the story as told by polished lawyer Sarah Weddington (Sarah Jane Agnew) who, along with Linda Coffee (a convincingly eccentric Susan Lynskey), argued the case; and the life and opinions of spunky Norma McCorvey (Sara Bruner), the pregnant and feisty “Roe,” who claims the lawyers deceived her into pressing the case.

Sara Bruner and Sarah Jane Agnew, in “Roe” by Lisa Loomer. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Norma’s story begins in a lesbian bar in small town Texas. As a waitress at the Red Devil Lounge, she by turns scandalizes and seduces her colleagues, who tell her that she is “going to hell on a scholarship” as penance for her antics. In a 2013 article in Vanity Fair, Joshua Prager recounts a story from Norma’s co-worker at the time: “Norma would bring two outfits to work: a dress and jeans, so that she could wear the jeans if the customer were girly, the dress if she was a cute butch.”  

Catherine Castellanos and Sara Bruner. Photo: Jenny Graham.

While it did not make it into Lisa Loomer’s script, this anecdote encapsulates Norma’s shape-shifting personality and the shifting gender norms of the time. Spanning 50 years of cultural change—from the late ‘60s to the present—“Roe” presents a multitude of perspectives not just on abortion but also on women’s roles and social class inequalities. Once the small town Texas girl becomes famous as “Roe,” long after she has had to give her baby away, we see the ways she uses and is used by the lawyers, the news, prominent feminists, and talk show hosts. She continues to wear jeans for some, and dresses for others.

Amy Newman and Sara Bruner. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Sarah Weddington’s story begins at a Women’s Consciousness Raising group in which the members devote their time to both afternoon tea and the search for their own elusive cervixes. We are introduced to Weddington’s legal ambitions as she delivers an impromptu speech on the need for universal abortion access. She describes bloody, tortured deaths and “entire hospital wings for botched abortions.” While Weddington expounds, Roxanne (Kenya Alexander), the Consciousness Raising group’s lone woman of color, attempts to educate her about racial inequity. She manages only a few interjections. We learn that while Weddington wants to do the right thing, she is willing to railroad a few people to get it done. 

Sarah Jane Agnew and Sara Bruner. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Director Bill Rauch knows how to engage an audience. As the play progresses, the audience becomes increasingly agitated; on opening night a woman yelled an “Amen!” after Norma calls an evangalist a “Dumbass Christian cunt.” Like “Hand to God,” also playing at Berkeley Rep and also set in Texas, “Roe” would surely not play so well in the Texan towns where most of its action takes place. And like “Hand to God,” the playwright has mostly succeeded in portraying people with funny human foibles instead of caricatured Southern hicks. 

Loomer edges close to stereotype in her portrayals of drug and alcohol abuse. She presents Norma’s mother Molly (Pamela Dunlap) as a ridiculous, messy, mean, perpetual drunkard. Like a Disney villain, she has no saving grace. We fear her and we laugh at her misery. In contrast, when Loomer’s well-known public figures wryly introduce themselves by way of their actual obituaries or their Wikipedia entries, we share their annoyance. These woefully inadequate obits feel delightfully, hysterically wrong. Like the characters on the stage, there is nothing we can do about it. 

Sara Bruner, Amy Newman, and Gina Daniels.  Photo: Jenny Graham.

Roe” has an extra challenge: How to present Norma McCorvey as self-serving and irresponsible without defaulting to anti-choice stereotypes of abortion-seeking women as, well, self-serving and irresponsible. Norma becomes a multi-dimensional character when she recounts the loss of her three children (all forced adoptions, the Supreme Court case having taken years to resolve). In these subplots, her wellings of emotion feel authentic, her rancor appropriate.

But I am wary of using a woman’s maternity (whether thwarted or fulfilled) to feel compassion for her. Throughout the play, anti-choice activists do precisely that. To them, motherhood will provide redemption. The Anti-Choicers denigrate and pity women who choose not to reproduce, including Norma and her decades-long partner Connie. Am I, in caring for Norma only when she shows her grief at losing her children, doing anything different?

Sarah Jane Agnew, Susan Lynskey, Richard Elmore, Sara Bruner, Catherine Castellanos. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Scene designer Rachel Hauk’s simple wooden stage set features a series of interlocking, sliding floors that move silently to bring actors forward to us and then back. Wendall K. Harrington’s stage-wide projections of palm trees, convenience stores, and government buildings transport us around the country swiftly and effectively. Hauk also makes use of historical photographs, including those of women whose names have long since been lost. We see them marching, holding placards with mottoes like: “Don’t Rock the Cradle, Rock the Boat!” Like this rumbling and tender play, the placards feel both sweetly antiquated and terrifyingly relevant. 

“Roe” by Lisa Loomer, directed by Bill Rauch, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, in co-production with Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Arena Stage, a world premiere, through Sunday, April 2, 2017. Info: berkeleyrep.org

Cast: Jim Abele, Sarah Jane Agnew, Kenya Alexander, Mark Bedard, Zoe Bishop, Sara Bruner, Catherine Castellanos, Gina Daniels, Pamela Dunlap, Richard Elmore, Susan Lynskey, and Amy Newman.

For more plays, check Theatrius: Now Playing.  Also check our Recent Shows.

Svea Vikander is a Swedish-Canadian radio producer and mental health professional. She lives in Berkeley with her husband and two small children. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

“Safe House” Breaks for Freedom, at Aurora Theatre, Berkeley

“Safe House” Breaks for Freedom, at Aurora Theatre, Berkeley

Millennial Notes

Black Lives, White Rules

by Benjamin K. Sloan

Before the Civil War, hundreds of thousands of African Americans were living in the South as “free” people—a status that constituted a misnomer, and still does.  Aurora Theatre tells us the horrifying story of pre-Civil War “free” Black people in “Safe House” (2014) by Keith Josef Adkins.

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Dawn L. Troupe, Lance Gardner, and David Everett Moore

Director L. Peter Callender snakes us through the treacherous Kentucky countryside in 1843, where the law is only a suggestion, and the white man plays King of the Hill. We find ourselves in the cabin of the Pedigrews, a family of a free Black people, made up of two opposed brothers: Addison (a talented David Everett Moore) and Frank (the engaging Lance Gardner).  Between them stands their Aunt Dorcas (the motherly Dawn L. Troupe), who tries to keep the battling brothers from self-destruction in the dangerous South.

referf-3Aurora’s intimate staging, with the audience on three sides, arena style, puts us up close to the Pedigrew family. As we look at their worn wood floors, battered pots and pans, and worn-down furniture, we can feel their lives and their oppression.

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The Pedigrews are led by the older, authoritarian brother, Addison, who can barely keep the family afloat by over-working as an artisan cobbler and salesman of his expertly-made shoes. Addison is constantly trying to corral his younger brother, Frank, whose boisterous and rebellious behavior puts the safety and tranquility of the whole family at risk. Aunt Dorcas tries to act as the intermediary between the clashing personalities of Addison and Frank. But we sense that she has other, bigger interests.

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Dawn L. Troupe, Lance Gardner, and David Everett Moore

The strain between Addison and Frank takes center stage, as we note their clash of ideologies in their dress and demeanour. Addison, the older brother, suits up conventionally with scarf, buttoned-up vest, and a smokin’ pair of sharp boots. Contrarily, Frank comes off as rugged, primal, and sexy, with hair popping out of his loose shirt and suspenders pressing tightly against his chest. They are a study in contrasts–reminding us of the later great debates between two leading Black thinkers: W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. Du Bois argued for independence, while Washington stood for subservience.

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Lance Gardner, Dawn L. Troupe, Jamella Cross, David Everett Moore

Frank and Addison debate what it means to be “free,” disagreeing on the very concept of “equality.”  Addison has conceded to the idea of “white superiority,” telling himself: “This is a white man’s world, ya gotta fit in when you can get in.” He wears his hair so that it looks like the wig of a white American politician, very George Washington-esque. He is obsessed with “getting equal” to the white man through his own merit, by succeeding as a businessman.  With success, he thinks he will reach the level of the oppressive white power structure. However, his strategy merely sets him up to be devoured by the traps of “institutionalized racism” in pre-Civil War Kentucky.

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Dawn L. Troupe, Cassidy Brown

On the other hand, Frank, the “free” spirit, gets furious with the white people in town who are, in fact, controlling them. He sees right through the veil of “freedom” that the whites have set up. The Sheriff sends his henchman, Bracken (the dynamic Cassidy Brown) to keep “an eye” on the rural and potentially rebellious Black folk.

Technically “free,” the Pedigrews have been put on a two year ‘probation’ for trying to help a slave escape from his master and cross to free territory in Ohio.  Two years before, that runaway slave was caught and tortured to death. The Sheriff controls Addison, through the power of  that probationary period. The Sheriff imposes his own version of “civilized” slavery, a new, illegal slavery, enforced by Southern custom and terror.

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Jamella Cross, Lance Gardner

Just as the Pedigrews are emerging from their “probation,” an escaped slave (the riveting Jamella Cross) will test their fortitude and ethics, profoundly. The production will have you at the edge of your seat, wondering if the Pedigrews can  survive the trials of the threatening and brutal world “free” Blacks in the slave-holding South.

“Safe House” becomes even more relevant when we realize that Adkins’ script offers parallels to today’s  America. What happens to the Pedigrews, still happens today. The patriarchal hierarchy still  sets up ideal expectations for African Americans and other immigrant groups to pursue.  Do we still dictate conformity to conventional culture to make success remote? Do we put high price-tags on colleges in order to bar the door to the “Other”? Adkins’ play and the powerful cast are asking us: Are we treating the the “Other” like children or worse? Have we changed our ways?

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Jamella Cross and Dawn L. Troupe

“Safe House” by Keith Josef Adkins, directed by L. Peter Callender, at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley, California, through Sunday, December 4, 2016. Info: auroratheatre.org

Cast:

Cassidy Brown, Jamella Cross, Lance Gardner, David Everett Moore, Dezi Soley, and Dawn L. Troupe.