Roe is dead in Louisiana. But ‘Roe,’ the play, lives on in Baton Rouge
Editor’s Note: This story contains descriptions of abortion methods that may be disturbing for some readers.
When “Roe,” the play, premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2016, its playwright, Lisa Loomer, knew it would need to be updated.
Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court case for which the play is named and based, was the law of the land, but the abortion debate in the U.S. was far from settled. Many believed it was just a matter of time before the 1973 ruling would be overturned — and they were right.
A lot has changed since then, especially in the Gulf South. When the court overturned Roe last year, it returned abortion law to state legislatures. Now, Louisiana has a near-total ban with no exceptions for rape or incest. Alabama and Mississippi have similar restrictions, though the latter allows abortion in cases of rape or incest that have been reported to law enforcement.
That’s what makes this month’s staging of the play at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge surprising.
“There are certain lines in the play that are not true in the state of Louisiana,” said Lori Parquet, the director of the latest production of “Roe,” put on this month by LSU’s theater department.
Even though the play was updated after Roe fell last year, Parquet says it doesn’t feel completely up-to-date. Still, the play’s opening hits home.
“Good evening. My name is Sarah Weddington,” says actor Marina DeYoe-Pedraza as Weddington. “I was the lawyer who argued Roe. vs. Wade. And tonight, I deliver its obituary.”
“Roe” chronicles the lives of Weddington and the case’s famous — and to some extent infamous — plaintiff Norma McCorvey better known as “Jane Roe.”
McCorvey was 22 years old and pregnant for a third time when she met Weddington in 1969. She wanted an abortion, but couldn’t get one in Texas where it was illegal. She was far from the perfect plaintiff and with time would become even less of one, but Weddington made it work.
The show’s preview last week was sold out — the 200 seats in LSU’s Reilly Theatre filled mostly with college undergraduates, including some who were encouraged to attend as part of LSU’s introduction to theater class.
Normally students taking the course would be required to attend the university’s mainstage production, but attending “Roe” is optional.
Parquet said the decision isn’t about politics.
“I trust that people know what’s best for themselves,” she said. “I kind of love that the department trusts that as well.”
Bridging the divide on abortion
For students, the play is both historical and contemporary.
They’re living in a world without Roe for the first time — and it shows.
Early in the show, Weddington talks about how some hospitals had entire wards dedicated to botched abortion procedures and at-home attempts before the procedure was legal.
“Some women do it themselves. They take Lysol or Turpentine. They use a telephone wire, a curtain rod, chopsticks, a broken Coke bottle, a vacuum cleaner,” she says.
From the front row of the audience, a trio of young men wearing LSU sports gear dropped their jaws in horror.
The play is meant to show the many sides of the issue — not just the pro-life and pro-choice binary. The idea is to bridge the divide by focusing on the people behind the case and their messy views on abortion.
Along with Weddington and McCorvey, the play also follows more than a dozen other characters. One of them is Flip Benham, the head of Operation Rescue, a fundamentalist Christian and militant anti-abortion group, who befriends McCorvey later in her life.
“The truth is it’s not your body, so it’s not your choice,” Benham declares in response to the pro-choice slogan, “My body, my choice.”
Abortion isn’t just black and white and “Roe” focuses on the shades of gray — literally and figuratively.
LSU’s production has almost no scenery. The actors sit amongst the audience when they’re playing judges on the bench — in the top row towering down — and lines and monologues are delivered atop gray boxes, like pillars in a sea of seats.
The fourth wall is broken frequently. The audience can’t look away or at their phones when they feel uncomfortable — though there are moments when some people clearly want to. Every seat in the theater is exposed to the actors and other audience members. There’s no hiding from “Roe.”
Show feels ‘ballsy’
Baton Rouge isn’t a blatantly liberal city like New Orleans. Instead, people who identify as pro-life are likely the majority in the state capitol. Abortion is a largely settled issue among elected officials in Louisiana, with many taking a pro-life stance — including Democrats.
Cast members said putting a show on about abortion here, especially at LSU, feels “ballsy.”
Kristen Sosnowsky, director of LSU’s School of Theatre, said the idea to stage “Roe” this season came from a faculty member, and it was a good fit for multiple reasons: it plays to this year’s graduate students’ strengths, is timely, and aligns with the department’s mission to produce works that explore social justice.
Sosnowsky said the school has creative freedom over its productions and hasn’t received any pushback over “Roe” or any of its other selections during her 20 years with the university.
Parquet, the director, said the role of theater is to help people understand the present and sometimes that means going into charged territory.
“This is one of those moments where we needed to be fearless,” she said. “I firmly believe that we have to be able to recognize the humanity in every single person involved in this story.”
The play’s goal, Parquet said, is to get the audience to lean in rather than away. To leave curious and more open-minded about abortion views that differ from their own.
Kate Zenor graduated from LSU’s theater school in 2019. She plays Linda Coffee, Weddington’s co-counsel, and several other characters on both sides of the issue.
Her family was planning on seeing the show over the weekend, including her 92-year-old grandfather. They’re all pro-life.
“My mom was asking me, ‘Well, is the show pro-life or pro-choice?’” Zenor said.
She told them a lot of people who are pro-life think the show is too pro-choice and a lot of people who are pro-choice think the show is too pro-life.
“So we’re kind of just aiming to make everyone mad a little bit.”
Students weigh in
Zenor, who is pro-choice, said she didn’t form her own opinion on abortion until she went to college. She hopes the show speaks directly to LSU students.
“It might be the first time they’ve ever been confronted with the other side of the issue,” she said. “I’m really hoping it just got them thinking about what their opinions are, what their thoughts are, versus what they’ve been told to think."
After last week’s pay-what-you-want preview, students lingered in the theater’s lobby chatting about the play with their friends.
“I don’t think my opinion has changed, but I won’t say my opinions,” said Kennedy, 18, with a laugh, when asked.
But 19-year-old Tyrel’s opinion did change.
“At first I felt like a woman should have a kid, but now I feel like it should be open to whatever they feel,” he said. “Everybody has their own side, but you don’t know everybody’s story.”
Kennedy said abortion is something students want to talk about. She’s glad LSU’s health center is open about the resources they do — and don’t — have.
“People get pregnant. It’s a prevalent issue on college campuses,” she said.
Watching the play showed her all of the things people consider when deciding whether to get an abortion. And it left her feeling better prepared if she ever has to help a friend through the process, she said.
But in Louisiana, deciding to get an abortion would almost certainly mean heading out of state, a barrier so great it stops many women who want one.
The play ends with a call to action, something Kennedy said resonated with her.
“The Supreme Court has spoken and it’s now time for you to use your voice,” Weddington says. “However you choose to take action, it is still now and forever will be your choice.”
Loomer has said in past interviews that she hopes people who see “Roe” realize the play examines choice rather than prescribing what choice to make and whether abortion is right or wrong.
The play has performances through this weekend at LSU’s Reilly Theatre on Tower Drive.