Theater: ‘MOM BABY GOD’ seeks new ways to talk about abortion

Theater artist Madeline Burrows explored anti-abortion rights meetings to make a pro-abortion rights play


In 2011, the U. S. House of Representatives attempts to completely defund Planned Parenthood were followed by a record-number of 92 new state restrictions on abortion. In 2012, there were 43. Forty years after Roe v. Wade, playwright and reproductive rights activist Madeline Burrows found herself looking at these numbers and wondering two things: First, how have we lost so much ground in the struggle for health care and equal access? And second, what can we do to fight back?

This line of inquiry lead Burrows into a curious journalistic endeavor: She spent a year undercover, posing as a young pro-life activist, to infiltrate and research a right-wing “underground” of sorts, the pro-life youth movement. This journey included visits to Crisis Pregnancy Centers, anti-abortion church rallies, and interviews with anti-choice activists, priests, and teenage video bloggers.

Madeline Burrows in "MOM BABY GOD"

Madeline Burrows in “MOM BABY GOD”

The result of this work is MOM BABY GOD, a one-woman show that “explores how girls develop a sense of self and sexuality amidst the ongoing political backlash against feminism and reproductive rights.”

Crafted as a way to invite (mostly) left-wing audiences into a right-wing universe, the show centers on Burrows as a kind of shape-shifting tour guide who leads us through this world in the form of seven different characters who come from an anti-choice (or “pro-life,” the nomenclature itself is so heavy with politics) perspective–though mostly our view comes through the eyes of Jessica Beth Giffords, “a peppy, Justin Bieber-obsessed 15-year-old and zealous anti-abortion video blogger,” as she navigates the vaguely-fictionalized Students for Life of America Conference.

Burrows and her team transform each performance space into this dramatized rally, where the audience is invited in and cheerfully offered nametags and asked to participate in different ways throughout the performance. In this way, the audience is given the spy-camera opportunity to witness what Burrows saw firsthand during her research/re-con.

The War Against Women is very real. If we’ve learned one thing from the last five years, (or just history in general), it’s that abortion is far from a single hot-button issue: It is a part of a concentrated series of attacks on women’s rights, bodies and health care. Restrictions to proper care have only multiplied and worsened. During a time of massive political upheaval and partisanship, the lives of real people are often cast aside or ignored entirely. MOM BABY GOD offers us a twist on the expected, by taking us into the world on the other side of the fence for most theater-goers. Perhaps, MOM BABY GOD suggests, if audiences have the opportunity to look at a heavily polarizing issue without the lens of news outlets and internet battles, we can view the lived experiences of real people and find ways to connect, engage and act.

“I wanted to create a piece that expressed the urgency of the attack on reproductive rights, and really galvanize people to do something about it,” Burrows said in a phone interview. “I hope MOM BABY GOD sparks conversations about the attack on reproductive rights, about how girls and women grow up in a highly contradictory climate of hypersexualization and sexual repression. I hope it brings attention to just how rare it is to see work written, performed, and produced by young women. And in the process, I hope MOM BABY GOD can contribute to bringing theater back into its historical role—being a site for ordinary people to come together and digest the world, and then do something to change it.”

Portland is the seventh city that Burrows and her five-woman production team have brought their show. They all put full-time jobs on hold to produce every bit of this show themselves. She tells me that through social media outreach, they have been successful in bringing out nontypical theatre audiences—namely, younger audiences and students who wouldn’t necessarily be able to afford a regular theatre ticket. MOM BABY GOD is a participatory experience, and she says that is what keeps audiences energized and engaged.

The show is generally aimed towards young people, young women, and feminists—people who are faced with impossible expectations about their own sexualities, bodies and sense of place in the world. People who have already leaned or are leaning toward the pro-choice movement, but who feel paralyzed and frustrated by the encroaching legal/rhetorical backlash of recent days. Young people are angry, and full of questions about how to fight back, Burrows says.

As an artist and an activist, Burrows herself is doing just that, and despite the inevitable backlash against the work, she and her crew are reaching the goals of the show: educating people about the extreme nature of these issues, building momentum, and sparking conversations that are not just important, but crucial to the reproductive justice movement.

“Even in liberal cities, there’s this idea that we’ve already ‘won’—but the reality is that there’s still so much ground we have to cover and conversations that we have to have,” she observed “When you do a show like this, you see that people are eager to talk about their lives–even if they can be difficult conversations to have.”

8 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, March 5-6
Refuge Pdx, 116 SE Yamhill St.
Tickets at:
$15 advance / $18 door

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