From our intern Tessa:
For their 2019 Spring Main Stage Production, The University of Akron School of Dance, Theatre, and Arts Administration performed Out of Silence: Abortion Stories from the 1 in 3 Campaign. As a graduate assistant and actor, I had the opportunity to be involved in every aspect of bringing this show to life.
Out of Silence is part of a national campaign, which has since evolved into Abortion Out Loud, centering young people’s stories and ensuring their access to abortion services. Its parent organization, Advocates for Youth, champions positive and realistic sexual health information and services that protect minors from STIs, HIV, and unintended pregnancies. Like NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio, they recognize that the fight for reproductive justice must be holistic, and almost always begins with education.
The University of Akron Theatre Program collaborated with local alternative theatre company, New World Performance Lab, to create a devised piece consisting of several of the plays from the original Out of Silence script as well as personal, anonymous stories collected by the cast. We set up a Google Form for online submissions and hosted a story circle for students and community members to share their experiences.
Strangers gathered and laughed and cried together. One participant described a sexual assault, after which she found solace from Black women in the clinic waiting room and a lifelong desire to fight for Black liberation. Another spoke of domestic violence and a prophetic walk through the woods in which she saw a clear path out of her abusive relationship. There was a woman who admitted that she had learned to be ashamed of her grandmother who had died as a result of a bathtub abortion, so much so that she had never spoken of it aloud. Yet another woman had suffered from seizures due to her birth control, and while adjusting her medication, became pregnant–she was a college student and wasn’t ready for a child, even though she was deeply in love with her partner at the time. Everyone had a different reason that had brought them into the room, but it was all rooted in a deep knowing of oneself.
The rhetoric surrounding the anti-choice movement is often deafening with exaggerated and emotionally manipulative imagery, slut shaming and gender policing, mostly by those who will never have to face the decision themselves. So, we created a cacophony of these transcribed accounts, overlapping and growing louder, forcing the audience to confront the full humanity of those who have had an abortion. This was especially powerful when those who had participated in the story circles were in the stands, hearing their words echoed back at themselves. Knowing they are not alone; there is support here.
The plays chosen from the original campaign presented a variety of circumstances contextualizing the abortion process, accompanied by a moving display of facts and statistics. A suburban white family, both breadwinners recently laid off and evicted, cannot bear to bring another child into their precarious situation–behind, a screen reads: 14% percent of abortion recipients are married and nearly 60% are already mothers. In the next vignette, a Black woman tearfully convinces her female partner to terminate a nonviable pregnancy in order to save her own life; overhead, the slide switches: in most cases, third-trimester abortions are typically a medical necessity, due to a severe health danger for the pregnant person or the fetus. Other scenes include a daughter breaking generational trauma by refusing to have the baby of her rapist and a college graduate, excited about a new job opportunity, weighing her professional future against single motherhood. These segments were strengthened by statements such as: Ohio lawmakers have consistently failed to eliminate a loophole legalizing marital rape, and America has the worst rate of maternal mortality in the developed world, particularly for Black women.
These heavy scenes were juxtaposed with original song and dance, encouraging us to listen and support one another, to be present in our own bodies. Then, at the end of every performance, we held a panel discussion with local pro-choice organizations such as NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio and Planned Parenthood, and women’s studies teachers from the university. In the midst of confusion about the six-week ban signed by Governor Mike DeWine the previous month, it was a relief to hear from those on the front lines that abortion was (and remains) still legal in Ohio. We had intentionally made our marketing around the show as neutral as possible to attract a diverse crowd, but I was relieved to hear Hannah Servedio of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio describe herself as unequivocally pro-abortion, may there be as many as necessary forever.
I think seeing varied representations of abortion matters in eradicating shame and stigma. Here are some lessons I learned from UA’s Out of Silence:
- For some people, the choice to get an abortion is traumatic, for others it’s simply a matter of checking an item of a to-do list.
- Abortion care is intersectional, and it is absolutely an LGBTQ issue. Lesbians, trans men, and nonbinary people need safe and affordable abortion access, too.
- Childbirth can be extremely dangerous, but abortion care rarely is when performed in a sterile environment.
- Comprehensive sex education lowers the rate of unintended pregnancies.
- A childfree life is a valid option–kids are expensive, exhausting, and no one should be expected to want them in exchange for being sexually active.
All of this knowledge, from a 40-minute presentation. Imagine what could be taught with the steady integration of abortion stories in all forms of popular media, representing the full range of experiences that the subject encompasses, all ages, genders, relationship statuses, and socio-economic classes.