Let's cut to the point: "Roe," playwright Lisa Loomer's drama about the plaintiff in the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade case, is a story about women by a woman. So why is the production opening Friday at Mixed Blood Theatre staged by a man?
"I've gotten that question a lot," said Los Angeles-based director Mark Valdez, who's also Mixed Blood's artist-in-residence. "I am a gay man directing this play about a woman's right to choose. Among the decisions I have to make in my life, abortion is never going to be one. And yet this play touches on so much more."
Valdez has an intimate, even aching understanding of the issues around the 1973 case, which enshrined the legal right to abortion. And not only because Valdez grew up in Dallas, where Norma McCorvey — aka Jane Roe — brought her lawsuit. The director was raised in a deeply religious family. He was in preschool when his mother became pregnant.
"Her doctors advised her not to carry the baby to term because there would be life-threatening complications," said Valdez, 47. "But she was a person of faith who couldn't bring herself to terminate the pregnancy. There was a lot of pressure on her not to do it, so she had the baby."
He caught his breath.
"I'm super-thankful that I have a wonderful brother who brings a lot of light to this world," Valdez continued. "But the flip side is that my mother died two months after he was born."
Yes, abortion is a heart-wrenching subject that cleaves families and the nation. It comes up in many Sunday morning church services, in marches on Washington and elsewhere — and especially at hearings for Supreme Court appointees.
And at the center of Roe v. Wade was a woman of profound contradictions. In fact, McCorvey became the face of both the pro- and anti-abortion camps at different points in her life.
"She embodies all of it, and imperfectly," said Loomer, whose play was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where it premiered in 2016. "My interest in the person and the play was not to demonize anyone, but to look at the divide and have a conversation."
When activists seek to right historic wrongs or battle for new rights, they often seek ideal figures as spokespeople. Take Rosa Parks, who became a catalytic civil rights icon with her December 1955 ride on a Montgomery, Ala., city bus. She wasn't the first African-American citizen to protest segregation. But the middle-class seamstress made for an ideal plaintiff, with 10 years of experience fighting for the cause with the NAACP. Everyone knew she could handle the crush of media and legal attention that followed her action.
But McCorvey, who died in February 2017, was an imperfect spokesperson for abortion rights. For starters, she was working-class in a society that prides itself on being egalitarian while harboring deep class biases. McCorvey also was drug- and alcohol-addicted. And she identified as a lesbian in an era of rampant homophobia.
"She's a dirt poor, uneducated, salt-of-the-earth Texas woman who doesn't want to help other women or to be a symbol or anything," said Tracey Maloney, who plays McCorvey in Mixed Blood's "Roe." "She's 22 with two children already, and she just doesn't want to have another baby."
Those circumstances, plus McCorvey's feeling that abortion rights leaders looked down on her, created mutual animosity. "The pro-choice folks didn't want her to be public because she didn't fit the sympathetic story," Maloney said. "She wasn't raped. She wasn't graceful and well-spoken with manners. And she was very combative. They expected her to remain anonymous until she put herself out there and said, 'I'm actually Jane Roe.' "
McCorvey came out in her 1994 book "I Am Roe." She also revealed her sexual orientation, writing about her erratic, decadeslong relationship with partner Connie Gonzales.
The book sharpened tensions with McCorvey's colleagues at the Dallas women's clinic where she worked. It also opened an opportunity for McCorvey's recruitment by Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion group known for blocking clinic entrances. In 1995, McCorvey was even baptized in a swimming pool by Operation Rescue's director, a rite that was filmed and broadcast on network TV.
In 1998, McCorvey released another autobiography, "Won by Love," covering her conversion to evangelicalism. Though she split with Operation Rescue a short time later, expressing reservations about the group's confrontational tactics, she worked for the remainder of her life to overturn Roe v. Wade. She later became a Catholic and claimed she was no longer a lesbian.
"She was exploited by both sides," said Maloney. "And the irony is that she never had an abortion her whole life."
'They were so young'
Fate plays a role, both in "Roe" and in the lives of the women involved in the case.
"Part of what's so compelling to me about the story of Roe is that none of these women intended to become symbols," said actor and arts advocate Laura Zabel, who plays Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who argued for "Roe" at the Supreme Court. "I'm struck at how this happened when they were so young — Sarah was 27 and Norma was 22 — and how it defined the trajectory of their lives."
McCorvey, of course, tried to break from the strictures she perceived with the movement. But Weddington, who is still alive, has been unflinching in her advocacy for abortion rights.
"The more I've dug into the factual history and the personalities, my overriding sense is that things have changed but not all that much," said Zabel. "The career pathways and the ways that women are able to articulate power are very different. But some of the language around choice and around abortion from the '70s is bolder than we have now."
The battle for abortion rights is often framed as a battle for choice. That provides "a prism for looking at America," said playwright Loomer.
"Norma made a lot of choices about her sexual and religious identity," Loomer said. "How is someone pro-choice in one aspect of their life and not in another? How do you insist on choice without realizing that choice means different things to different people?"
Director Valdez reflected back on his mother, and the difficult decision she faced just as "Roe" made abortion legal.
"Ultimately, the play reminds us that there was the ability to make a choice," he said. "And that is significant — that somebody can make choices about their life."