A community-workshopped production illustrating how birthing people have strived for reproductive justice across time made its debut Wednesday, and audiences have two more opportunities to join in the conversation.
After three weeks of open-to-all rehearsals, a staged reading of Lawrence playwright and director Timmia Hearn DeRoy’s “On-Born Children and Ghosts” premiered Wednesday night at the Carnegie Building in downtown Lawrence.
The 10-act play lays bare the experiences of a Queer mixed-race couple, Char (Ang Bennett) and Emily (Sarah McGuire), and their hopes of becoming parents through assisted reproductive technology. The play highlights the complicated emotions they experience and the fears they face.
Even more than a baby, Char wants a healthy wife. Dreams haunt Char, as do the ways in which the couple’s relationship changes after a fetus enters the picture.
“You know how scary this is for me,” Char tells Emily in the first scene. “I never, ever thought I would be a parent, until you, until us. And then it was just kind of a dream, a fantasy. And now, it could be reality, and I’m scared.”
World Health Organization estimates show 385,000 are born daily worldwide with 6,700 newborn deaths occurring every day. In 2020, 800 women died during pregnancy and childbirth. Most could have been prevented.
In Kansas, mortality rates rose for Black and Indigenous people who were pregnant between 2009 and 2019. Black women are more likely to die from pregnancy than any other group in the United States.
Although Char, who is Black and nonbinary, worries about Emily, the statistics stack up in favor of Emily, who passes for white.
“You being pregnant just reminds me, every second of every day, that if I were pregnant, I would have a much higher chance of dying than you do right now,” Char says to Emily. “No matter what that racist doctor said.”
DeRoy, who grew up in Lawrence and is a spouse and daughter of immigrants, employs a Company of Ghosts played by Carmelle Garcia, Chris Pendry, Rhonda Simmons and Gabrielle Smith. They inhabit numerous roles in Char and Emily’s journey to parenthood: friends, racists, feminists, misogynists, unborn children, unethical doctors, birth doulas, ancestors, thoughts, fears, supportive loved ones, those who pass judgment, and more.
Some ghosts are living; others are dead. Their voices represent people across the Guyanese, Caribbean and African diasporas.
Although they haunt sometimes, they provide a calming presence at other times, especially after transforming the hymn “I’ll Fly Away” from a dirge to a praise hymn with beats provided by Barry “Washboard” Barnes.
The play draws from some personal experiences, although DeRoy said it shouldn’t be considered autobiographical. It’s based on years of reproductive justice research by DeRoy and her spouse, Pere DeRoy, who alongside Brad Mathewson, serves as dramaturg. Rounding out the crew are Lauren K Smith, stage manager; Michelle Heffner-Hayes, choreographer; and Allison Lewis, music director.
After the reading Wednesday, a talkback forum moderated by Elise Higgins focused on the play’s reproductive justice angle. Higgins is a professional abortion rights advocate and PhD candidate in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Kansas.
Panelists were Hakima Payne, founder and CEO of Uzazi Village, a Kansas City nonprofit focused on eliminating health outcome disparities in African-American communities; Pegah Naemi Jimenez, birth doula and PhD in social psychology; and Amber Sellers, a Lawrence city commissioner who earned a master’s in public administration and health education from KU and serves as advocacy director at Trust Women Foundation, which advocates for access to health care for all, including abortions, regardless of where they live or ability to pay.
Arming birth doulas “against systems” while training them to support individuals is “really difficult work that takes a toll,” said Payne, who has worked as a registered nurse in labor and delivery for 24 years and is pursuing a PhD in nursing education.
She said building supportive and nurturing communities for birthing people and those who support them and the birthing process is a large part of Uzazi Village’s focus.
“The system isn’t any kinder to the doulas than it is to the birthing folks,” Payne said. “But I also want to emphasize that doulas are really just a stopgap — that what we ultimately want is for systems to transform and to change and to become more humane places.”
She said the part of the play that touched her the most was a scene on a slave ship. Working with Black, child-bearing families, Payne said, often starts with how Black, gestating people are seen and how their bodies have been treated historically and today.
“I thought it was really appropriate to reach back, and the actress said they’re treated like livestock, and in a lot of ways, we haven’t really overcome that,” she said. “But our bodies and our labor are seen as very utilitarian-like and denied the basic human dignity and we’re judged according to our labor and what we can produce.”
Sellers spoke to the issue of Kansas in the reproductive justice arena in a post-Dobbs world. The fight for access to abortion has been “very white centered” and the struggle has resulted in a narrowing of minds and attitudes around reproductive rights, according to Sellers.
She said you have to step back to look at the bigger picture and not use the terms “reproductive justice” and “reproductive rights” interchangeably.
“Reproductive rights is part of the bigger aspect of reproductive justice,” Sellers said. “I liken it to, if reproductive justice is the iceberg, reproductive rights is just the tip.”
Sellers said justice includes access to contraception, bodily autonomy and freedom, choosing how and when to birth, formulating a birthing plan, and more. There’s room for everyone in the fight, and the foundation of the work is justice. Rights, including access to abortion, are a piece of the bigger picture, she said.
“There’s a lot more to fight for and to educate and to enlighten and embolden people on when it comes to comprehensive reproductive health and what it is that we’re advocating to create social impact,” Sellers said.
Jimenez said two very different birth experiences of her own showed her how variables such as the birth setting can affect maternal health outcomes. It led her to birth doula work and a goal of helping birthing people attain empowerment and knowledge. Birthing people are in charge of the process, she said.
“I remember thinking there are people who are in this situation who die,” Jimenez said. “There are Black women in this situation who die. And that was the end for me. That was the end where I said, ‘I have to be a part of this so that I can help my community make decisions for themselves and have others around them who can advocate for them in this very vulnerable time.’”
A ghost representing a birth doula in the play (Carmelle Garcia) tells Char and Emily to specify their choices in their birthing plan. She tells them forced medical interventions — or a lack of them — can cause irrevocable damage.
“Choice. Choice is everything,” the ghost tells the couple.
Staged readings of “On-Born Children and Ghosts” continue at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, Nov. 16 and 17 in the Carnegie Building’s event space, 200 W. Ninth St. The production runs about 90 minutes and includes a 15-minute intermission. Visit threefacedproductions.com for ticket information.
After the reading Thursday, a talkback will feature Alex Kimball Williams as moderator. Cast and crew members will discuss the use of art as a means to generate social transformation.
Friday night, moderator Alisha Saucedo will lead a community discussion about creating more access for people and achieving collective healing around birth and pregnancy trauma.
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