Washington, D.C. – Molly Smith felt she had no choice: she had to birth a theater piece.
"When Roe v. Wade was struck down I was devastated, along with just about everyone I know," says Smith, longtime artistic director at Arena Stage. "So I contacted eight wonderful female writers and asked them each to write a monologue around choice."
The result is an evening called My Body No Choice, opening October 20th. In a nod to the voting age of 18, it will have an 18-performance run with tickets priced at $18, concluding the Sunday before November's midterm election.
Because a woman's right to choose is central to the evening, it made sense not to restrict the choices made by the playwrights, Smith tells NPR. "Many are writing about choice around reproductive freedom. But some are writing about choice in terms of the right to die; choice in terms of the right to be the body size that you want to be."
Hawaiian-born playwright Lee Cataluna, for instance, writes in her monologue, "Things My Mother Told Me," of how her mother worked within her societally-constricted choices to make strong decisions in child rearing, in life-lessons, in finding joy in the birth of six kittens after a doctor made her have her tubes tied. And then, after a lifetime of following orders, she chose to stop chemotherapy, even in the face of her daughter's opposition. "You're giving up and choosing death," Cataluna protests in the monologue, before noting the irony. "It was the only real choice she ever got to make over her own body, and I was furious with her over making that choice."
Smith suggests that these sorts of stories can prompt shifts in perception. "I looked at gay rights and when that quantum change [in acceptance] happened around the country. And I believe it's when gay people began telling family, friends, neighbors about who they were — the whole of who they were and their sexuality. There was a national shift.
"I think what's happened with abortion and reproduction is that for many, many years women have been silent. And I think now is really a time for women to speak out."
A purpose-driven stage
To facilitate the speaking out, Arena is inviting women, trans, and non-binary individuals to share their stories about choices and their bodies in short videos to be showcased on the theater's digital media properties, "extending the experience after the lights have gone down."
As the final production Smith will direct before ending her 25-year tenure at the waterfront D.C. arts complex she helped build, My Body No Choice fits her vision of a purpose-driven stage and its place in society.
"Theater is the closest art form to who we are as human beings," she says. "There's something that happens in the theater that changes people, and shifts maybe not who they are, but shifts their thinking."
Besides Cataluna, a Who's Who of women playwrights are contributors: Pulitzer Prize-finalists Dael Orlandersmith (Yellowman), and Sarah Ruhl (In the Next Room or the vibrator play), as well as playwright and screenwriter Lisa Loomer (Roe, The Waiting Room), and V (formerly Eve Ensler) a Tony and Obie-winning activist and author of the worldwide phenomenon The Vagina Monologues. Also performer/poet Fatima Dyfan; playwright/director/producer Mary Hall Surface; and a D.C. artist who's chosen to remain anonymous "to highlight how personal and private our choices are."