Natalie Y. Moore’s play The Billboard, now in a world premiere with 16th Street Theater, is subtitled “A Play About Abortion.” In the spirit of Chicago improv, allow me to say: Yes, and.
The setup is as simple as it is powerful: a neighborhood gadfly puts up a billboard near the [fictional] Black Women’s Health Initiative clinic in Englewood with a photo of a Black baby and the legend “Abortion is Genocide.” This puts clinic director Dr. Tanya Gray, her staff, and her board right on the spot: respond or not? If so, how? For whom are they speaking, and to whom? And because the gadfly is running against an incumbent alderwoman, how will the clinic’s response be used, and by whom?
Through 7/17: Thu-Fri 8 PM, Sat 4 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM, Abbott Hall, Northwestern University, 710 N. DuSable Lake Shore Dr., 708-795-6704, 16thstreettheater.org, $25 ($18 Berwyn residents, virtual viewing $17)
So Moore’s play is about abortion, yes, and also about how “social issues” (aka women’s health care) get caught up in local politics—and also about how Chicago politics is inseparable from issues of race. Candidate Demetrius Drew argues that abortion is just another facet of neighborhood depopulation engineered by white developers to prepare the way for Englewood’s gentrification. No matter that the assertion isn’t factually correct—the area’s population is not shrinking because its women residents have abortions—because it’s emotionally resonant. And that, in turn, introduces another theme: the differences between Black feminism and its white counterpart.
There’s a lot to chew on here, and Moore’s strong suit is her sense of the complexities surrounding the situation. She offers us an early debate between Tanya (played with an appealing mix of tenderness and bravado by LaQuis Harkins) and her board president Dawn Williamson (Margo Gadsden-Harper). When Tanya proposes an answering billboard describing abortion as self-care with the hashtag #TrustBlackWomen, Dawn objects: “The men who say Black mothers are dangerous will weaponize our message. . . . I can hear the eugenics chatter now from people who are on our side.” To which Tanya responds heatedly, “We are not Planned Parenthood!” Given that pro-choice white women like me regard Planned Parenthood as a champion—almost a savior—this is a complicating and challenging response.
Sure, we know that founder Margaret Sanger held racist eugenicist views, but compared to the good she did . . . and besides, that was a long time ago.
But here’s the point, and I’m grateful to Moore for helping me see it: “That was a long time ago” turns out to be a convenient phrase for white people to apply to nearly every aspect of the Black experience that flows from the original sin of slavery. Consider the just-discovered arrest warrant issued but never served on Carolyn Bryant, the woman who accused Emmett Till of looking at her crosswise. The people who found it want to have it served now as a way of securing some justice for Till, but they’re facing resistance having to do with the woman’s age. “She’s over 80 now—it was all such a long time ago.” Moore knows, as did Eugene O’Neill, that the past is never really past.
So The Billboard is about abortion, yes, and politics, yes, and racism, of course, and the intersectional strains within feminism; but its meta-theme is when and how to speak up versus when and how to keep silent in the name of advancing some greater cause. For women of any color, being silenced is a constant problem; but as Moore shows vividly, for Black women particularly, speaking up has its own special pitfalls.
With this many themes operating, it’s no wonder the play is constructed as a series of debates between Tanya and everyone around her. But that structure interferes with the show’s momentum, pulling our attention off Tanya’s development from mission-driven leader through publicity-besotted symbol to chastened player of a political game in which she and the clinic are pawns. Her arc is the one we care about; she’s the one we’re rooting for. And it’s hard for playwright and actors alike to bring something fresh to the climactic scene, a debate between aldermanic candidates, when most of the arguments have already been presented in point-counterpoint style.
Director TaRon Patton secures strongly anchored character performances from the entire ensemble: Milan Falls as Tanya’s fearless young feminist aide (and there’s another yes, and: generational differences about what’s private and what can be said out loud); Veronda G. Carey and Frederick Williams as the equally if differently smarmy politicians squeezing the clinic between them; and even the “Stage Hands” (Nicholas Allen and Kayla Satcher) who act as chorus, commenting in multiple voices on the contest of ideas.
But the play’s physical staging in a small auditorium at Northwestern’s law school downtown does it no favors. The space has a high ceiling with no acoustical tiles. This, coupled with a box set perched on the proscenium stage, renders much non-debate dialogue inaudible, though things improve whenever the action moves to the floor-level apron. And on opening night—delayed several times due to COVID-19 outbreaks among the cast—none of the actors was word-perfect, with line stumbles that fit oddly with the rhetorical fluency of their characters.
No play could be more timely, of course, than one about abortion in the days after the overturning of Roe vs. Wade. And it’s refreshing to encounter a piece approaching every side of the issue with respect and rigor. At the same time, watching it felt a bit nostalgic: this was what things were like when abortion was still protected by the U.S. Constitution. It’s one thing to argue about the legitimacy of a woman’s decision when she gets to make one—something else entirely to consider what it’s like when that option is taken away. Near the end, Tanya once again separates her concerns from those of white feminists when she says, “My work is about justice, not choice.” Without the latter, though, there’s no possibility of the former. That’s where we are now.