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Helmerich School of Drama, University Theatre seek to open dialogue surrounding abortion with 'Roe' performance

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OU's production of "Roe" will open at 8 p.m. April 23 with six additional performances. 

On Jan. 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that the Constitution grants people who are pregnant the right to terminate that pregnancy. Now, nearly 50 years later, the Helmerich School of Drama and University Theatre will recount and explore the experiences and activism of the women behind the historic decision with its upcoming performance of “Roe.” 

“Roe” was published in 2019 and written by Lisa Loomer, co-screenwriter of the 1999 film Girl, Interrupted. The play follows the stories of lawyer Sarah Weddington and plaintiff Norma McCorvey, better known as “Jane Roe,” according to a press release. 

“‘Roe’ explores the ways in which truth is refracted and renegotiated over time by diverse groups of people,” said director Nancy Bell in the release, “something we will all have to grapple with more and more in the coming years.” 

Lanee Starr, an acting sophomore, plays Norma McCorvey in the play. She said “Roe” gives those on both sides of Roe v. Wade a fair chance of making their point during the show. 

“It's important to watch the show, or even just read the show, because then you get to hear other people's arguments,” Starr said. “You get to hear other people out — you get to understand why they think the way they think. You may not agree with it, but you at least get to hear why people believe what they believe.”

Starr said preparing for her role involved extensive research about McCorvey’s life in order to portray McCorvey and her views effectively.

“It's reading books that she's written, watching documentaries about her, finding anything that I can, so I can get a little insight on how she thinks and how she would act in certain situations,” Starr said.

Throughout her life, McCorvey endured poverty, abuse, homophobia, sexual assault and other hardships. When she was caught kissing another girl in a hotel room, she was reported to the police and sent to a Catholic boarding school, according to a California State University, San Bernardino memoriam.

When McCorvey became pregnant with her first child, her ex-husband began to physically abuse her. McCorvey started drinking and engaged in heavy drug use. By the time she was pregnant with her first child, she was struggling with addiction, finances and mental health, according to the memoriam.

“She went through things that I couldn't even imagine going through,” Starr said. “Trying to get into that mindset and having to carry the burdens that she did — it's been difficult.”

During her third pregnancy, according to the memoriam, McCorvey decided she wanted to pursue a safe and legal abortion, so she sought out help from lawyer Sarah Weddington.

OU Professor Jennifer Holland, who wrote “Tiny You: A Western History of the Anti-Abortion Movement” and specializes in the history of reproduction and abortion, said the landmark Roe v. Wade decision set a legal precedent based on the “right to privacy” in the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. She said the precedent operates in the “gray area” of the due process clause — the set of legal procedures the government must follow before it may deprive any individual of the rights to life, liberty or property. 

Holland, who specializes in the history of reproduction and abortion, said the due process clause leaves life, liberty and property rights violations open to interpretation, which is why the Roe v. Wade decision is still debated today.

Drama senior Nikki Mar plays Weddington in the production of “Roe” and said she is looking forward to portraying the famed lawyer. 

“Sarah Weddington was one of the first (female) lawyers to argue anything before the Supreme Court,” Mar said. “(It’s) a really important thing for women's rights, and also just feminism in general.”

Weddington went on to become the first female general counsel of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to Britannica. Like the woman she is portraying, Mar is also breaking down barriers for women in theater, specifically women of color.

“It’s really hard to be a woman of color in theater because when you're not white, people always typecast you,” Mar said. “They want to cast you as the maids or background characters that are made fun of.”

Mar said most casting directors are white and often visualize people that look like themselves when they read a script, so when auditions roll around, they already have an image of who they want to cast in their minds. 

“I feel like, when I'm auditioning for stuff, I have to try 10 times harder and do 10 times as much work for my auditions than a white person,” Mar said. “I have to put in much more work just to be considered for the same roles.”

Mar said when she auditioned for “Roe,” she never anticipated she would be cast as a lead. 

“It was a really amazing feeling knowing that what I look like doesn't matter,” Mar said. “It was about my acting and what I did in the audition room that got me the part.”

Holland said women of color, specifically Black women, have been at the forefront of the fight for reproductive justice. She said white women were limited by their racially privileged, largely middle-class point of view, but women of color were facing two sides of “reproductive coercion.” 

While women of color were fighting for birth control and abortion access, they were also grappling with forced sterilization motivated by eugenics, state law violence and other abuses, according to PBS

“Women of color, especially Black women, pushed in the ‘80s and ‘90s … pro-choice organizations to expand their vision of reproductive politics,” Holland said. “They pushed in a really essential way to have broader reproductive rights … toward justice around the process of birth, the right to have children, the right to raise your children in supportive environments.”

Acting freshman Jackie Simmons plays “Ronda”— an anti-abortion Christian woman — in “Roe” and said, as a Black woman, she relates to the struggles of the Black women who advocated for their voices to be heard during the feminist movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s. 

Simmons said, as a Black woman, she struggles with intersectional oppression in the forms of both sexism and racism.

“As African American women, we deal with both sides of the spectrum,” Simmons said. “We have the patriarchal and misogynist ideas of us, but also like the racist traps on us, the stereotypes and the microaggressions, so we deal with it all.” 

That oppression extends beyond reproductive rights, and Simmons said that Black women working in any business, including the acting business, have to work harder than their peers because simply being Black women in America can put them at a disadvantage. 

“As minorities, we do have that weight on us of having our race be something that can be a detriment rather than it can be just who we are, our identity,” Simmons said. “We can't fully own it, because the world hasn't fully accepted it.”

Simmons said working on “Roe” has been rewarding because the story means so much to her. She said the story allows for anti-abortionists and pro-choice advocates to voice their opinions and sheds a light on the voices that were suppressed at the time due to their race. 

“We have multiple characters in the show like Aileen — she's an African American nurse — who, during that time, was really struggling with trying to speak up, but if she does, she could literally get killed,” Simmons said. “That's how it was back then.”

Despite the efforts of reproductive justice advocates, the right to abortion is not guaranteed. Holland said that the Supreme Court has been opening up opportunities since the 1980s for states to pass their own anti-abortion laws. 

Anti-abortionists in Oklahoma have attempted to pass some of the strictest abortion laws in the country. Oklahoma House Rep. Jim Olsen proposed SB 612 on April 7 in an effort to abolish abortion by making it a felony for doctors to perform the procedure, according to KFOR

OU Professor Elyse Singer, who specializes in medical anthropology and reproductive governance, said during her extensive research in Latin America — a region with very strict anti-abortion policies — she discovered that anti-abortion policies do not stop people from getting abortions.

In fact, Singer said the policies have motivated grassroots feminist movements in Latin America to assemble a black market for pharmaceutical abortions. 

Singer has authored several articles on her findings and said some of women in her Latin American studies shared that they viewed abortion as an act of caring for the unborn fetus.

“[Abortion] was a way to care for a would-be child by protecting it from scarcity because they couldn't,” Singer said. “They didn't often have the economic conditions to bring another child into the world and many of these women were already mothers with caring obligations to other existing children.”

The complicated ins and outs of the reproductive justice argument may seem daunting, but Mar said “Roe” does a fantastic job at explaining the nuances of the issue with grace.

“The play really does represent both sides in a way that is not demeaning,” Mar said. “Whether you agree or disagree with Roe v. Wade, it is a part of our history and it's a part of our country, and it's very important that we stay knowledgeable on history.”

“Roe” opens at 8 p.m. on April 23 at Weitzenhoffer Theatre, 563 Elm Ave. Additional performances will take place at 8 p.m. on April 24, 29, 30 and May 1 and at 3 p.m. on April 25 and May 2 at Weitzenhoffer Theatre, according to the School of Drama website

Tickets can be purchased online or at the box office in the Catlett Music Center and are priced at $25 for adults, $20 for seniors, OU employees and military, and $10 for students. Tickets at the door will cost $35 for adults and $15 for students.

Simmons said “Roe” is meant to encourage conversations about a topic that some people find uncomfortable. 

“It's so rewarding to have (those conversations),” Simmons said. “I know that if people come to see this, I can, afterwards, have those conversations with them, and knowledge is the next step to making this world not as chaotic and as horrible as it already is.”

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