Abortion: A ten-ton word that sends shockwaves rumbling across a twenty food radius wherever it is uttered. But why? It’s a contentious political issue for sure, perhaps the most contentious, but it’s also the reality of millions of women across America. In the same way that Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues shattered the silence surrounding female sexuality twenty years ago, Out of Silence: Stories from the 1 in 3 Campaign attempts a bold reconnaissance for reproductive rights into mainstream dialogue. And although the production itself, twelve short plays authored by nine female DC-based playwrights and directed by Marie Byrd Sproul, needs some work, the context in which the play is produced is both admirable and moving.
Advocates for Youth, a DC-based non-profit organization, titled its “1 in 3 Campaign” after the fact that one in three American women will terminate a pregnancy in her lifetime. To showcase the human side of this legal yet controversial procedure, Advocates for Youth collected stories from hundreds of women willing to speak about how their abortions influenced their lives. The nine playwrights: Allyson Currin, D.W. Gregory, Caleen Sinnette Jennings, Nicole Jost, Jacqueline E. Lawton, Kristen LePine, Jennifer L. Nelson, Anu Yadav, and Karen Zacarías combed over these true stories to dramatize twelve short plays that cut across boundaries of class, ethnicity, and sexual orientation to paint a broad portrait of what terminating a pregnancy really means for women who make that choice.
There is no one-size-fits-all story when it comes to abortion, and the cast does a good job at moving quickly between characters. Bess Kaye is deeply moving as a college student whose rock solid friend keeps her from falling apart at the prospect of her very Catholic mother finding out about her pregnancy in “Ruah.” On the other hand, Lilian Oben, in “Dinnertime” plays a jarringly distant mother who married her rapist, rendering her initially un-sympathetic towards her own pregnant daughter.
Ariana Almajan is a lively and entertaining as the titular character “Maria”, whose story of young pregnancy switches seamlessly between English and Spanish. She explains that en español, to give birth is dar la luz – literally, to give light. It is every woman’s choice whether to give the gift of light or to keep it; a powerful way of expressing a woman’s ownership over her own body.
Jeri Marshall performs in what is perhaps the most unusual story of the lot, “Charlie,” in which she plays one half of a lesbian couple who has an abortion because she learns her baby will not survive outside the womb.
Gerrad Alex Taylor is responsible for representing the entire male gender throughout the show, and one of his best turns is as an accountant discussing the financial implications of a baby in “Checks and Balances.”
All of these stories are powerfully written, and they present an extraordinary challenge for actors and directors alike. They all zoom in on perhaps the most dramatic moment in each of these character’s lives. That’s a heavy challenge to meet, especially for actors who must play five or more characters throughout the show.
There were moments during Out of Silence when these consequential turning points seemed too casual, and it was difficult to believe the authenticity of the circumstances. This is truly a play that demands exemplary characterization, and I’m sure that as the Festival continues each actor will continue to sink deeper into his or her own character. When that happens, the humanizing intent of the script will flourish.
It is truly difficult to mount a sophisticated design for a Festival where you need to be in and out in less time than it takes to cook and egg. Nevertheless, Scenic Designer Paige Hathaway does provide some interesting video projections between plays, which, combined with a fun, Girl Power! soundtrack by Sound Designer Jeffrey Dorfman, moves the plays along at a nicely rapid pace. The set design could use more work. A table and two chairs is just fine, but the table seemed inadequate for the actors needs in a number of circumstances. Besides the aforementioned furniture, the only “set” was three large rugs strewn about the stage that added little to the show and were sometimes a distraction.
Abortion has been legal in America for over 40 years, and it is a part of millions of women’s lives. It is an outrage that so many feel they must be silent, after all this time, about an experience that is so integral to their lives. Out of Silence is an important production, and its dissemination across college campuses starting this fall will have a real impact on public discussions of reproductive rights. This is theatre at its best, and it deserves serious attention.
Out of Silence: Stories from the 1 in 3 Campaign plays through July 26, 2015 at Galludet University’s Eastman Studio Theatre –Florida Avenue NE & 8th St NE, in Washington DC. For more information and to purchase tickets, go to their Capital Fringe page.
Read the preview article on DCMetroTheaterArts by John Stoltenberg.