Lawrence playwright invites hometown to join conversations on maternal health outcomes

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Timmia Hearn DeRoy set out to write a play about maternal morbidity that spoke to its author. Now it’s Lawrence’s turn to help workshop a play that speaks to the community.

During a series of rehearsals, staged readings and talkbacks in the coming weeks, DeRoy invites everyone to participate in a community conversation about maternal health outcomes, using as a springboard DeRoy’s 10-act play, “On-Born Children and Ghosts.”

Years of historical research, coupled with dissertation work on the ways in which stories contribute to social transformation, has shown DeRoy that storytelling devices — music, theater, and film, for example — are among the best ways “to get the pulse and the reflection of the people.” And telling one’s own story is most effective, said DeRoy, whose work focuses on social justice theater.

“I set out to write a play about maternal mortality and morbidity among women across the African diaspora, specifically in Guyana, which is where I was doing my research,” said DeRoy, who uses all pronouns.

But something else emerged.

“This play, I think, speaks to experiences of Black women, Indigenous women and white women, and Asian women, just women across different spectrums in ways that the original play that I was trying to write was really telling a specific story,” they said.

DeRoy said “On-Born Children and Ghosts” is “a Queer mixed-racial couple’s journey through pregnancy, and the ghosts that haunt them. Moving through four hundred years of colonial history, into doctor’s offices, places of worship, on the water, political offices, and into the homes of people experiencing pregnancy and those caring for them, this play asks us to examine our own experiences of pregnancy and desires to become, or not become, parents. How can we be our ancestors’ wildest dreams if they only had nightmares?”

Contributed Couple Timmia Hearn DeRoy, at left, and Pere DeRoy, of Three-Faced Productions

The play is produced by DeRoy and Pere DeRoy’s production company, Three-Faced Productions. The couple has also produced a docuseries in partnership with cinematographer and editor Max Jiang that asks “Who Gets to Parent?” The series, part of which is still in production, highlights the DeRoys’ journey to expand their family through the experience of a queer couple navigating a health care system plagued with discrimination.

Using their own in vitro fertilization, pregnancy and parenting journey as inspiration for “On-Born Children and Ghosts,” DeRoy said the play wasn’t written autobiographically, but some crossover exists between the docuseries and the play. Ultimately, the play builds upon multiple layers, generations and realities of people across the African diaspora and beyond.

The cast for “On-Born Children and Ghosts” are Ang Bennett as Char and Sarah MacGuire as Emily — a married couple. Appearing as ghosts are Carmelle Garcia, Gabrielle Smith, Rhonda Simmons and Chris Pendry.

Crew members include Lauren K. Smith, stage manager; Pere DeRoy, dramaturg; Michelle Heffner Hayes, music director; and Allison Lewis, music director/consultant.

Open rehearsals

Each weekday from Monday, Oct. 23 through Tuesday, Nov. 14, rehearsals will be held virtually or in person at various locations across town during daytime hours in order to mesh with the DeRoy family’s schedule. Look for times and locations to be announced on Three-Faced Productions’ website, Facebook and Instagram.

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All are welcome to attend — whether they choose to participate or only observe — and even for just a brief time, said DeRoy, who also is director. The point isn’t to present “a shiny, perfect production” of her artistic vision. Instead, she plans to record the sessions for her own use and make edits to the play based on the process and its feedback.

DeRoy said they expect participants to show up and listen with an open mind while practicing politeness and respect — no matter their stances on issues such as queer-people parenting or abortion. Everyone has something in common: They’ve all been born.

“This story is about people across time who have lived these things,” DeRoy said. “I think they’re all true in their own special way. And they’re all honest and then they’re reflections, you know. And I will have a website that we will release that will have all of our sources, websites, news articles that are drawn from for this play — books that you can read, because this all happened. This all happened.”

In the post-Dobbs world of the present, Kansas remains a place with high rates of reproductive injustice and incarceration, especially among Black and Indigenous people, DeRoy said.

Mortality rates rose for Black and Indigenous Kansans who were pregnant between 2009 and 2019. Studies show Black women are more likely to die from pregnancy than any other group in the United States.

And since 1990, the Black incarceration rate in Kansas has increased 51%, according to a report by the Vera Institute. “In 2015, Black people were incarcerated at 3.9 times the rate of white people, and Native American people were incarcerated at 1.5 times the rate of white people,” the report read.

Staged readings

DeRoy has lived most of her life in Lawrence and grew up on the city’s dance and theater stages, including the original home of the Lawrence Arts Center — the Carnegie Building. 

During the last phase of “On-Born Children and Ghosts,” staged readings will take place at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, Nov. 15, 16 and 17, in the Carnegie Building’s event space, 200 W. Ninth St. Moderated talkbacks — each night with a different panel — also are planned at the conclusion of each of the approximately 90-minute shows. Again, DeRoy envisions these talkbacks as an opportunity for the community to share in dialogue.

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General admission tickets can be reserved on the play’s website at timmiahearn.com. Attendees are asked to “pay what they can,” DeRoy said, whether they reserve their tickets or pay at the door. DeRoy just asked audience members to not reserve tickets until they’ve confirmed their own availability in order to prevent unused reservations.

“But anybody can come,” DeRoy said. “We will absolutely encourage you to come if you have $0 to spend on this. That’s totally welcome.”

“On-Born Children and Ghosts” is a recipient of a 2023 Rocket Grant through the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas and Charlotte Street in Kansas City. The Rocket Grant website tells visitors it provides “grants for unconventional, public-facing artwork in surprising places.”

The Carnegie Building is part of the Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area, which documents the struggles for freedom in 41 counties throughout eastern Kansas and western Missouri. From the Cider Gallery where auditions took place to the culmination of the community project at the Carnegie and everywhere in between, buildings hold history, DeRoy said, and the spaces are part of the process.

“There are so many histories running through the foundation of Lawrence,” DeRoy said. “It’s our freedom-fighting roots to the ways in which we participate in exclusionary politics that I want to bring light to with this production, and just say, ‘These are our stories. These are our ghosts.’”

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Tricia Masenthin (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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