A Cautionary Play About the Supreme Court Case Legalizing Abortion

A scene from 'Roe' by Lisa Loomer at Berkeley Rep: (L to R) Sarah Jane Agnew (Sarah Weddington), Susan Lynskey (Linda Coffee), Richard Elmore (Justice Harry Blackmun), Sara Bruner (Norma McCorvey), and Catherine Castellanos (Connie Gonzalez). (Photo: Jenny Graham/Berkeley Rep)

When Lisa Loomer began writing Roe, her play currently at Berkeley Repertory Theater about the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, she wasn't alone in assuming that the pro-choice Hillary Clinton would be the next President of the United States.

Now, with the election of President Donald Trump -- who has pledged to appoint justices who will overturn Roe -- the play (a co-commission with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Washington D.C.’s Arena Stage) has become a much more cautionary tale. We recently talked with Loomer in Berkeley about Roe, and how its meaning has changed.

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Does Trump’s election change what Roe  means for you, and for the audience?

The fascinating thing was reading the play the day after the election, just quietly reading it in my room; it played differently. Scenes that were celebratory now play as “Oh my God, we won that, but look where we are now.” Scenes that were cautionary in terms of the history of this issue, because this law has been whittled away tremendously over time, you hear totally differently because of what’s happening now. Our intention was to present the play during the election of the first woman president, and things worked out very, very differently. So what was funny then, may be less funny now. What was tragic then, may be more tragic now. There’s a lot of audience response in the play, arguments have broken out. It’s a hot time and a hot issue.

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Another thing that’s changed is the death last month of Norma McCorvey, better known as Jane Roe, the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade -- who, later in her life, became an opponent of abortion. What does the play say about McCorvey, and do we perceive her character differently, knowing that she’s gone?

I think of Norma McCorvey as a very complicated woman, and an accidental figure in history. When I started to read about these two women, Sarah Weddington (the attorney who represented McCorvey in the case) and Norma, I thought, "This is the story of my play." They begin as allies, plaintiff and lawyer. But after the case, their divergent journeys reflect the subsequent divide in American culture in an uncanny way (Weddington became a Texas legislator and remains a staunch defender of abortion). This is the story I wanted to tell; how we can’t even talk to each other, because we approach issues like this from such different places. Why are we such a divided culture? Why do we resort to yelling, and screaming, and sound bites, and slogans?

Lisa Loomer, author of the play ‘Roe’ at Berkeley Repertory Theater
Lisa Loomer, author of the play ‘Roe’ at Berkeley Repertory Theater. (Photo: Joe Romano/Berkeley Rep)

Perhaps a play can’t answer that question. But why do you think we can’t we talk about abortion, and how does the play help bridge the divide?

I think you’re right, a play can’t answer a question. But I think that a play can illuminate the feelings on both sides, and that’s what our news fails to do, and what theater can do so beautifully, because it reveals the human side of the story. We see characters dealing with these very difficult questions.

In one scene, set in the Supreme Court, one of the Justices asks, “Is this a religious question, is it a medical question, is it a philosophical question? What is it? How do we define life?” And one of the other characters says “Good question.” The audience gets to ask that question for themselves.

Listen, nobody has come to this play and said, “I walked in pro-choice, and I walked out pro-life,” or vice-versa. And that’s not my intention. What I have heard, though, in letters from audience members, they've said, “Darn it. You made me understand and even have some compassion for the other side.”

Someone said, “I went with a friend who thinks differently than I do. We’ve never talked about it. We talked about it all the way home. So it’s given people a way to talk. Some language, some permission, some inspiration to talk. And that’s what theater can do.

A scene from 'Roe' at Berkeley Rep: (L to R) Sara Bruner (Norma McCorvey), Amy Newman (Ronda Mackey), and Gina Daniels (Ensemble).
A scene from 'Roe' at Bekeley Rep: (L to R) Sara Bruner (Norma McCorvey), Amy Newman (Ronda Mackey), and Gina Daniels (Ensemble). (Photo: Jenny Graham/Berkeley Rep)

So what impact can this play have on audiences or national politics?

I have to admit I am interested in opening an audience member’s mind -- by opening his or her heart. I think of a term that my friend Father Greg Boyle uses, “a reverence for the complexity of human beings.” And that said, I think the play is also a call to action for people who are pro-choice. And that’s good. Roe is at risk. And if this play is also a call to action for people who are pro-life, that’s great too.

The awful thing about being a human being is that we have to make terrible choices. And for me, looking at what choice means, it made me very wary of people who would seek to make my choices seemingly easier than they are.

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