On a Wednesday in early June, a cast of five performed an evening’s worth of true abortion stories, stories that are rarely granted the patient audience inherent to theater.
Remarkably Normal, written by Jessi Blue Gormezano and directed by Marie Sproul, recently completed its first national tour with stops in eight major cities. The play was inspired by real-life stories that had been submitted to the 1 in 3 Campaign, a grassroots movement within Advocates for Youth that brings attention back to the people whose lives are actually impacted by abortion care.
Throughout the play, at The Barnsdall Gallery Theater in Los Angeles, the actors each portrayed multiple characters: among them a Southern teenager, a Planned Parenthood sex educator, an abortion provider, a pro-choice minister and a woman with a high-risk pregnancy. They performed with an almost bare set—just a few wooden chairs and three white curtains on wheels, a simple staging so that their stories were the primary focus.
Remarkably Normal, by its nonfiction nature, explores the complexities in making the choice to terminate a pregnancy—consistent with its goal to spread awareness and open up a dialogue about a topic that, even in liberal circles, can be considered taboo. The account of a college student character who said she felt “euphoric” after her abortion, knowing that she had regained control of her future, was immediately juxtaposed with that of the child rape survivor, who said, “[After the abortion], a deep depression set in. I went to church to try and find redemption because of the guilt and feeling like I, you know, committed murder. I didn’t regret it, but I hated it.” An ex-boyfriend expressed his understanding that he had no say in his partner’s choice to terminate, but he couldn’t pretend it didn’t affect him. A mother of four who didn’t want a fifth child said nobody could understand her situation if they had never felt something else in their body.
The characters of a doctor and minister provided historical context, depicting the tenuous nature of the current state of reproductive rights; each had dialogue describing how faith leaders and physicians ended up at the forefront of the fight to legalize abortion, both ethically and morally unwilling to stand by while more than 1,000 women a year died from unsafe, back-alley abortions. The audience reacted with audible distress when the doctor character, describing the era before Roe v. Wade, says a woman came in with “a temperature of a 106, 107 degrees” and “a red rubber catheter hanging out of her cervix that a well-known illegal abortionist had put in.”
In order to effectively play their characters, the actors engaged in numerous conversations about abortion and the stigma surrounding it. “Some took on doing the play because it was something they really believed in, and others just wanted the work,” said Debra Hauser, President of Advocates for Youth, in an interview. “It has become a really interesting education, and they’re much more... wedded to the advocacy. It changes the way people, as the playwrights or as the actors, really interact with this issue.”
Each stop on the national tour of Remarkably Normal features a “talkback” following the performance, in which local organizations speak with the audience about resources in their own community. In Los Angeles, where the talkbacks were led by Planned Parenthood LA and Black Women for Wellness, an audience member shared her defeat: “I’m frustrated. I’m 68 years old, I had friends who went through back alley abortions. I am astounded… that this is still happening today.” Dinah Stephens, Director of Public Affairs for Planned Parenthood LA, asked who else in the theater felt similarly after watching the play. Every audience member raised a hand.
At the end of June, the Supreme Court struck down House Bill 2 (HB2), declaring the regulations that had forcefully closed half of the abortion clinics in Texas to be unconstitutional. The ruling was certainly a victory for reproductive rights, but it remains unclear when or how Texas will be able to re-open the clinics that it lost, and new anti-choice laws are brought to state legislatures on a regular basis.
“I’m still learning things today,” said actor Gisela Chipe, adding that her performance introduced her to various nuances within the fight for reproductive rights, and was especially relevant given her background.
“For Latinas and women of color, family planning is so important and paramount for their quality of life,” she continued, “because it often connects to economics.” It was after portraying the mother of four who cannot afford, and does not want, a fifth child that Chipe learned that over half of the women seeking abortions—59 percent—are already mothers.
Chipe said their cast get-togethers, where they’d share details regarding the interviews that had shaped their characters, were both powerful and disturbing, largely because the information from pre-Roe v. Wade abortion providers graphically described the horrors of the not-so-distant past when abortions were illegal. “Why are we doing this play right now? [It’s because] we could go back to those days,” Chipe said.
And in some ways, we already have gone back: the abortion restrictions in Texas resulted in at least 100,000 women self-inducing their abortions. “This was a history lesson,” Chipe continued. “I have to deal with—as a human being and as a woman in this world—the anger that I feel... looking at history and how many men were making legislation over women’s bodies.”
Gormezano, the playwright, found that the more she started speaking to friends about the project she was working on, the more they would open up about their own related experiences: “It became a way for me, in my life, to start conversations around abortion care and access that I probably wouldn’t have started had I not been steeped in these stories.” It was also a way to keep up her spirits during the research. “That was a nice benefit. I didn’t feel totally alone with the weight of all of these stories, and could communicate with people who I probably wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Remarkably Normal is not the first play based on real-life abortion stories to come out of the 1 in 3 Campaign. In 2015, student activists at colleges across the nation began producing Out of Silence, a 90-minute series of 13 vignettes intended to depoliticize the act of getting an abortion by focusing on the real people involved, in partnership with the organization. “Once [Out of Silence] is performed, the audience sees that it’s people’s real lives and unique experiences,” 1 in 3 Campaign director Julia Reticker-Flynn said in a phone interview. “We are contextualizing this in people’s realities, and so when people are sharing their own experiences, it speaks louder than the political rhetoric that also goes along with conversation about abortion.”
Numerous media outlets have compared Out of Silence to The Vagina Monologues due to its feminist themes, adaptability, and relationship with college campuses. The latter play, written by Eve Ensler, is by now well-known for its stories about women discovering their bodies and sexualities in spite of a patriarchal culture, evolving into almost a rite of passage for college students learning to navigate feminist thought. The Vagina Monologues exemplifies theater as activism; it was first performed in 1996 at an Off-Broadway theater, and was eventually staged in Madison Square Garden in 2001. It is still put on at countless college campuses across the nation today. Ultimately, it gave rise to V-Day, a worldwide movement devoted to ending violence against women and girls.
Hauser described Out of Silence as also being “perfect for student activists” because of its low production costs and simple staging, but the organization always imagined creating a more theatrical production that could exist beyond the college activism sphere. Their vision was a play with numerous characters, in which all of the narratives were integrated, rather than performed as separate monologues; Gormezano crafted Remarkably Normal as an evolution of Out of Silence.
Sadie Hernandez, a 21-year old political science major at University of Texas- Rio Grande Valley facilitated and organized the production of Out of Silence at her campus, while advocates were fighting against HB2 and the devastating damage it has wreaked upon those in need of abortion care. “Just being from Texas, abortion access has been stripped so horribly, especially in Rio Grande Valley,” says Hernandez. “And when we talk about issues with health care, prenatal health, abortion, teen pregnancy, and things like that, they disproportionately affect low income women of color.”
The conversations sparked by Remarkably Normal and Out of Silence are creating an outlet for women, an avenue to discuss a facet of our lives that we are implicitly taught to keep secret. We still have a dire need for these spaces; what else could explain the swiftness with which abortion-related Twitter hashtags go viral? In September 2015, for instance, following an increase of attempts to defund Planned Parenthood, former Jezebel writer Lindy West—inspired by her friend Amelia Bonow—tweeted, “Don’t whisper, #ShoutYourAbortion.” Within a single day, the hashtag was trending, with scores of women using Twitter to document their reasons for terminating pregnancy. The overwhelming response demonstrated that if women have a platform to speak, an abortion can immediately shift from taboo into something that thousands of strangers have in common, a shared experience they don’t regret, something that’s reflected in numerous other Twitter hashtags of recent years: #YesAllWomen, #WhyIStayed, and #NoWomanEver. And when Gormezano was drafting Remarkably Normal, she reviewed approximately 1,800 pages of interviews and story submissions from the 1 in 3 Campaign—a number that demonstrates just how eager women are to talk.
Predictably, though, both Remarkably Normal and Out of Silence have been received with criticism from right-wing media. As recently as 2004, The Vagina Monologues was referred to as a disgusting, graphic, feminist attack. In May, anti-choice site Life News published an article claiming that Remarkably Normal promotes the murder of innocent babies, and there is “nothing normal about that.”
Bronte Burnette, a 20-year old political science major who directed a production of Out of Silence at the University of Montana, said that her cast and crew became the subject of numerous local news stories after a reporter from the town’s NBC-affiliate saw angry Facebook commenters demanding to know if the play was funded by the college. “[The station] contacted the university and contacted our faculty director. It became this huge investigative thing about how we were paying for this,” she said. “We had to show that Advocates for Youth gave us the money and paid for everything.” On the day of the opening performance, Burnette said she woke up to an inbox full of emails from news outlets attempting to reveal something “corrupt” about the play.
Fortunately, it doesn’t seem as if this kind of harassment is enough to deter future productions. During the talkback following the Los Angeles performance of Remarkably Normal, the audience was asked to contemplate how they have or haven’t spoken about abortion. A 32-year-old audience member who said she had been raised in a pro-choice household remarked that she had only learned about her mother’s abortion a few months prior to that evening. She continued, “This just reminds me how little pro-choice people even talk about it. Why wouldn’t she have talked about that with me before?”
Her response is what Hauser wants to see more of. “The more people are willing to be outspoken and break through that kind of nervousness and silence, the more other people are then willing to talk about it, too,” says Hauser. “Whether that is within the movement itself, or within these actors and their families – you’re sending out these little ripples.”
Rachel Sanoff is a Los Angeles-based journalist and creative nonfiction writer. Her reporting focuses on gender equality, activism, reproductive rights, and health. She is a regular contributor at Bustle, and her writing can also be found at the Huffington Post and The Culture Trip. Contact her at email@example.com.
Top image via, from Left to right: Evelyn Spahr, Shanta Parasuraman, Josh E. Johnson, Gisela Chipe, Tracey Conyer Lee. Image courtesy of Remarkably Normal