Last January, Boston-based actor, writer, and activist Madeline Burrows took a trip to Washington, DC, to go undercover behind pro-life/anti-choice lines. "I shaved my legs," she says, "put on some lip gloss, and registered for the Students for Life of America National Conference." The experience became the high-water mark of a two-year project to learn what life is like for young women in conservative Christian America.
The result is MOM BABY GOD, an effervescently depressing solo show that is equal parts ethnography and agitprop about the tweens, teens, and twentysomethings who, Burrows explained in an e-mail, are "pressured in two impossible directions in a culture that tells girls and women to 'be sexy' (for boys) but 'don't have sex' (until it is heterosexual sex with your husband)." Theirs is a paradoxical world, both peppy and grim, where the aesthetics are glitter and cupcakes, but the talk is of warfare and slaughter. "Keep a smile on your face," one of the characters in MOM BABY GOD says, "even when you're talking about bloody things."
The play takes us inside an anti-choice youth rally that is revving up the fresh-faced troops to shut down a nearby abortion clinic, the last one in the state. Burrows plays eight characters—including a smarmy pro-life pop star, a macho doctor/coach, and a potty-mouthed "new wave feminist for life"—but our main tour guide is Jessica Beth Giffords, an excitable young woman who runs a video blog called I'm a Pro-Life Teen. Jessica is irrepressible in a squealing "OMG, you guys" kind of way and bounces around the room wearing a pink hoodie, a ponytail, and a homemade T-shirt announcing her pro-life politics in aggressively bright puffy paint. Before audience members even get into the theater, Jessica merrily accosts them in the lobby. "Welcome to Choices for Life Medical Clinic!" she chirps. "Who here likes cupcakes?! Who here likes birthdays?! Did you know that one in three children are not allowed to have a birthday?!"
And on it goes, immersing us in the relentlessly smiley and uncritical world of the rally where the speakers mix fact, fiction, and melodramatic gestures to hammer home a single, simple point: Sex is dangerous, scary, and bad (except in the distant confines of some far-off marriage to someone you haven't met yet).
In one scene, the gruff Dr. Bryan Dwayne—who puts his hands on his knees and talks to us like we're a high-school football team about to play the biggest game of the year—explains the emotional dangers of sex with a large strip of tape. "I need the whole first row to stand up," he exhorts. "It's your lucky day, folks, you're all gonna go out on a date with Miss Tape. Put out your arms... Miss Tape looks pretty good, huh?" Having sex, he explains, "is not unlike putting a piece of tape on another person's arm." He demonstrates on an audience member. "The first bond is strong, and it hurts to remove it. OUCH, you guys. But look what happens with each time Miss Tape goes out on a date. She gets used. And she loses her ability to bond effectively... look at Miss Tape now. Not so sticky anymore, huh?"
Burrows says the project began when she went undercover to a crisis pregnancy center—CPCs are nonprofits that present themselves as clinics, but which exist to counsel women against having abortions—as part of an activist campaign when she was a student at Hampshire College. The experience, she wrote in an e-mail, "was emotionally intense and bizarre. There were baby clothes pinned to the walls and scientifically inaccurate fetal development kits in the office where the counselor gave me raspberry tea and cookies and told me, 'December is not a bad time to have a baby!'... I caught the bug for immersive research."
Inspired by documentary artists such as Anna Deavere Smith (Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992) and the Tectonic Theater Project (The Laramie Project), as well as Les Freres Corbusier's literal and unmodified performance of an evangelical Christian "hell house," Burrows started going to fundraisers and rallies. "I nearly hit my limit," she explained in an article about the experience, "interviewing a priest who awkwardly explained to me the science behind [former US representative] Todd Akin's offensive claim that women can't get pregnant from rape."
But in the end, as MOM BABY GOD knows, political grandstanding has personal consequences: pro-life teens who are terrified of their own sexuality—terrified of themselves—and turn that terror on already terrified young women trying to get to the clinic next door. All that fearmongering, no matter how sunny, does not make for happy and healthy young women. As it turns out, it's awfully hard to talk about bloody things and keep a smile on your face.
MOM BABY GOD comes at a high-pressure moment in America's reproductive politics. Back in 2003, a study by the Guttmacher Institute found that 87 percent of US counties do not have an abortion provider, and earlier this year it announced that more state abortion restrictions have been passed since 2011 than in the entire decade before that.
During her undercover research, Burrows said she was "struck by how much ground the anti-choice movement had won, how much they controlled the terms of the debate close to 40 years after Roe v. Wade, and how they were mobilizing young people and co-opting feminist and civil-rights rhetoric." As Dr. Dwayne enjoins in MOM BABY GOD, "Raise your hand if you were born after 1973. Wow. Keep 'em up. Your generation are survivors. You have made it when one-third of your generation has not... we're gonna say: 'I survived Roe v. Wade but Roe v. Wade will not survive me.'"
MOM BABY GOD has the strange distinction of being reviewed in the National Review. In a reversal of Burrows's research, some activists from Students for Life of America attended the play's New York premiere and secretly filmed it, handing the footage off to SFLA president Kristan Hawkins. In her review, Hawkins critiques the play for being banal and "unoriginal"—which would indicate that MOM BABY GOD has the ring of truth.