Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case that legalized abortion across the United States, has its origins in a pizza parlor.
Despite the longstanding fame surrounding the decision, this detail, like many others involving the case, is not widespread knowledge. Even lesser known are the stories of the women who spearheaded the fight for safe and legal abortion — Sarah Weddington, Linda Coffee and Norma McCorvey (Jane Roe herself). Fifty years later, a leaked Supreme Court draft to overturn the decision has called the court case back into the center of political debate, but these stories remain buried under the discourse — the legal perspective often eclipsing the human life present at the roots of the abortion rights movement in America.
The Actors Ensemble of Berkeley, or AEB, strove to change that last week in its staged reading of Lisa Loomer’s “Roe.” The play centers around the lives of lawyer Sarah Weddington and plaintiff Norma McCorvey beyond the scope of the immediate court case, painting an evocative picture of Roe v. Wade’s reverberations across both their personal lives and U.S. history.
While the show may not have employed all the flashy elements of a fully produced play, such as costume, setx and lighting design, the barebones staged reading format allowed for more opportunity to digest the text as is. As director Susannah Wood expressed in the director’s note, “it’s fun for the audience of listening viewers, because they must use much more imagination to fill in missing pieces that lighting, sound design, sets, costumes, and action would have expressed.”
Indeed, the actors’ infectious energy and creativity colored the spaces the format left behind. After only two rehearsals and mere weeks of planning, the AEB’s limited preparation made the show’s poignancy all the more impressive.
Both Sarah and Norma had separate actors playing their young and old selves, creating a fascinating commentary on the way history is often misrepresented by its own subjects. As young Sarah spoke her lines, old Sarah physically stood next to her, providing context for her past actions as the voice of the present. Characters frequently criticized other characters onstage for their lack of historical honesty, stepping out of the show to address the fourth wall by disputing others’ version of events. The decision to feature multiple actors for the lead roles’ various ages added a richness and vibrancy missing from the original text, and it grounded the audience in the present while reminding them of the play’s historical implications.
This unique choice also served to highlight history as a constantly changing issue. It was striking to note the difference in demeanor between the older and younger actors playing the same role. Young Sarah was eager, determined and bright with conviction; old Sarah, weary of arguing the same case for 50 years, was more cynical and subdued, a representation of how many pro-choice activists are feeling as Roe v. Wade faces reversal once again.
The tension between Weddington and McCorvey raised an ethical dilemma over the individual cost of creating change, making their relationship all the more compelling. “I was building a case to help all women,” Weddington said at one point in the play. “Yeah, you didn’t give a damn about Roe the person. All you cared about was Roe the case,” McCorvey passionately replied. This sentiment encompasses the core of the play: the intersection between the legal and personal ramifications of Roe v. Wade.
A talkback session immediately followed the show, creating an open, vibrant space for audience members to share their stories, experiences and feelings about how they connected with what they had just watched. As women shared tragic, powerful and uplifting stories, the heavy weight of emotion in the space was nearly tangible. Not only did the AEB put on a moving performance, but it successfully created a space for empathy and education.
The Actors Ensemble of Berkeley will return for a final performance at The Marsh Berkeley on June 16.