Thursday, March 21, 2019

MUST SEE: Roe at Mixed Blood Theatre

History is way, way more important than modern society gives it credit for. 

Photo by Rich Ryan

And I'm not just saying that because I was a history major in college.

When people think of history, they tend to think of a boring giant textbook with tests that make you memorize endless dates and stories about a bunch of fusty old white dudes who have nothing to do with modern life.

History as I think of it is a living, breathing text coexisting all around us. It's the context that frames our understanding of life and culture (although we don't always know it). History doesn't just tell us the who and the when of a thing; it tells us the why. And that why really matters when it comes to solving big problems like racism or sexism or income inequality. Good history helps us understand the problem itself and the way forward by asking fundamental questions like: Why does this system exist? Who made it, and for what purpose? Can it be better? How?

Those origin questions are at the heart of Roe, a dense, fabulous new show at Mixed Blood Theatre and my first MUST SEE production of 2019. Roe tells the story of the Roe vs. Wade court decision, the infamous case that legalized abortion procedures across America. Thanks to two generations of legality, abortion is cropping up again in the cultural consciousness as an issue to be debated. Unfortunately, that debate is mostly absent the context that history provides - Why did "Jane Roe" win her case? What about her argument was compelling? What does the Supreme Court decision actually say is and is not legal? Why has this law been applied unequally state by state? What is the impact of reversing that decision and going back to the days when abortion was illegal?

Photo by Rich Ryan

These are not trivial questions, and it's imperative that we ground this conversation in context with that level of detail. Lives are literally at stake, and once this right is reversed it will not be so easy to get it back again. Roe is a MUST SEE because it provides a fully fleshed context to understand the issue of legal abortion by centering those most affected by it: women. Leading the show are Tracey Maloney as Norma McCorvey (the real life Jane Roe) and Laura Zabel as Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who argued and won the Roe vs. Wade case in front of the Supreme Court. The story could have stayed narrowly focused on the relationship between these two women and still been fascinating; the origins of the Roe vs. Wade suit and the way the case was argued are really interesting and rarely discussed. Roe's genius is that it takes that relationship, gives it the long perspective of stretching over several decades, and then adds in voices from many others along the way who seem to be otherwise completely absent from this conversation: medical professionals who worked in clinics before abortion was legal and saw the medical trauma women would go through when they were botched; experiences of any stripe of women of color; lesbians; and many more.

This subject, and the level of detail that Roe utilizes, could easily become daunting or obtuse. The brilliant cast at Mixed Blood does an excellent job of turning it into a riveting, almost game show-level piece of entertainment that educates as thoroughly as it enthralls. Maloney and Zabel are superstars in the leading roles and perfect shepherds of this material. They both bring great complexity to their performances; neither is a villain or a saint, and Maloney in particular totally disappears into her role as Norma. They force us to find empathy on all sides of the aisle, and in a debate as fraught as this one that is no mean feat. A host of spectacular supporting actors provide great depth to the show that helps transition the action through the years. Several regular favorites, such as Dame-Jasmine Hughes, Bonni Allen, and Kate Guentzel grace the stage and are just as good as ever. Two new-to-me actresses also provided astonishing depth in their short times on stage: Lisa Suarez, who was devastating as Norma's partner Connie; and Jamila Joiner, who pops out of nowhere and give a heartrending monologue at the end of the show, closing Roe out with a moving, modern understanding of what this issue really means.

Photo by Rich Ryan

Hats off to director Mark Valdez for his stunning vision for this performance. The cast is perfect and the production design sets a clean stage for the complexity of the story. Anna Robinson keeps the scenic design understated so the large cast can quickly rotate through roles, a wise choice. Sarah Bahr and Emma Gustafson provide iconic costume and wig design, respectively, placing us smack in the middle of each decade featured in the play. C. Andrew Mayer provides subtle sound design that subconsciously moves the audience between perspectives, and Paul Whitaker's lighting design fleshes out the lean set. Abbee Warmboe places several key props - such as hanging judicial coats - that loom over the drama, helping us never forget who is really in charge of this issue.

Why do I declare Roe a MUST SEE performance? For one, it's a damn good piece of theater work; the writing is tight and engaging, the cast is filled with rock star performers, and it's overall a beautifully run production. The real reason, though, is that the issue of abortion is only abstract until you need one, and people need them more often than you think. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 75% of abortion recipients are poor or low income and 62% are religiously affiliated. Perhaps most astonishingly, 59% already have at least one child and 60% are obtained by women in their 20s or older - not their teens.

Photo by Rich Ryan

It is very hard to watch the debate around abortion - especially as a woman - and know there is so much misinformation being weaponized within it. What is undeniable about this issue is that women WILL get abortions whether they are legal or not. The question as a society is: do we want to make that process safe? Do we care about the lives of pregnant women who are put at risk, or who will be put at risk by receiving dangerous care on the black market? Wherever you stand on this issue, Roe is the best thing I've seen yet that provides important context and detail to help you distill your thoughts. It turns the issue of abortion from an abstract but vitriolic debate into one with flesh and blood and very important consequences. I think any person of any belief system can find valuable information in Roe and I highly encourage everyone to check it out before it closes on April 14. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

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