Last week, JWI supporters attended the D.C. premiere of Roe at Arena Stage. The production explored the history of the landmark Supreme Court case, and the ongoing battle for safe, affordable, and accessible abortion care.
by Lauren Landau
“Jane Roe is dead, but Norma McCorvey lives!” Pastor Flip Benham as played by actor Jim Abele exclaims. A week after seeing his performance in Lisa Loomer’s Roe at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage, that statement is no longer true.
Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff in the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, died February 18th at 69 years old. Her legacy is better known than her personal story. The latter may surprise theatergoers and abortion-rights activists alike: McCorvey never sought to legalize abortion access for all women.
A single woman without money or interest in having a child, McCorvey had already carried two previous pregnancies to term, adopting out both children—one to her mother and one through a closed adoption. This time, she wanted to terminate the pregnancy.
Lawyers Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee took her case, though the decision came much too late for McCorvey to secure an abortion. Instead, she unwittingly paved the way for other women to make the choice she legally could not. Known only as “Jane Roe,” McCorvey later revealed her identity and became an abortion-rights activist. In her 1994 autobiography I Am Roe, she also revealed that she was a lesbian.
In Roe, audience members watch Roe and her partner, Connie Gonzalez, work on the frontlines at an abortion-care clinic. There, a feisty and foul-mouthed McCorvey deals with the clinic’s new neighbors, a pro-life organization that aims to undercut the work of the clinic next door.
The anti-choice protesters scare off women seeking care, including one (played by Gina Daniels) who previously told clinic workers her husband would literally kill her if he discovered she was pregnant. Incredibly, McCorvey’s anger and frustration with the neighbors shifts dramatically and she shocks the country by converting to Christianity and becoming an outspoken pro-lifer.
Understandably McCorvey’s transformation made headlines. It also created headaches for members of the pro-choice movement.
Roe provides both entertainment and a history lesson, particularly for those who were born into a world with federally legalized abortion access. Of course, just because the Supreme Court made it so in 1973 does not mean the matter is settled or that the fight is over. The play also served as a sobering reminder of the ongoing struggle for safe, affordable, accessible abortion care.
“I just want to shake them,” Weddington, as played by Sarah Jane Agnew, says in Roe. The character is talking about her law school students, who did not appreciate their freedoms or the delicate balance that keeps them in place. Her frustration was shared by theater patrons who remember what life was like before the landmark case.
During a post-performance Q&A with cast members Kenya Alexander (Roxanne), Sara Bruner (Norma McCorvey), and Catherine Castellanos (Ofelia/Connie Gonzalez), a member of the audience who identified herself as a nearly-70-year-old lawyer reflected on the days before Roe became law. “Kids would come into our store, and we would call an ambulance because of a faulty abortion,” she said, recalling incidents when as a young person she worked in her parent’s bakery-deli in Kansas City. “And I think to myself this is so visceral.”
The production highlighted the many legal, logistical, emotional, and financial hurdles women face today when looking to terminate a pregnancy. As the character Roxanne, Alexander sat in the audience throughout the production before standing up in modern clothing and describing the difficulties she faced in her attempts to terminate a pregnancy. From road trips to loss of wages due to time off to medical costs to burdensome state laws that tied doctors’ hands, she was exhausted, broke, completely confused, and still pregnant. She asks, in lines, how it’s possible that abortion is legal, but she can’t get one.
“It’s kind of shocking that we’re still having this discussion,” one self-identified millennial said during the Q&A.
Alexander said the election of President Donald Trump changed how she viewed the production and the context in which she delivered her lines. When she first landed the role, the play seemed celebratory and like a history lesson on some long-settled dispute. “And then the election happened and new justices are being appointed and so now it’s become very scary doing it for me every night,” she said during the Q&A.
“I feel it [now] in a different way,” she said. “We are in scary times and this is now my reality, where it wasn’t before.”
Bruner also said her take on the play was deeply affected by the election. She was part of the original cast for the world premiere production at last year’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival and, at the time, took things for granted and viewed the show as a celebration. “And then post-election it changed so drastically,” she said. The cast was on break then, and returned to rehearsals with an entirely new world view.
“Everything has changed so the play feels to me more like a battle cry,” she said. “The play feels like a continuation of the Women’s March to me. It feels like some way that I can participate aside from going to protests and emailing and calling. It’s another form of voice that I’m very grateful to have right now because I’m so full of things to say.”
On stage, in town halls, and across the country, pro-choice advocates will need to continue to raise their voices. Norma McCorvey is dead, but Jane Roe must survive.