In short order, Smith was calling and emailing writers who she knew would have their own urgent and poignant responses to the attack on a basic legal right for American women. The result was the extraordinarily swift whipping-up of a production that will run at Arena next month, presenting the voices of eight female playwrights of various generations and colors, speaking their minds about decisions over their bodies.
The dramatists behind “My Body No Choice” include such established talents as Sarah Ruhl, Dael Orlandersmith, Lisa Loomer, Lee Cataluna and V, formerly Eve Ensler, author of “The Vagina Monologues.” (The others are Fatima Dyfan, Mary Hall Surface and a writer identified only as “Anonymous.”) Performed by a cast still being assembled, the evening of 10-minute monologues begins Oct. 20 in Arena’s Cradle and runs through Nov. 6, the Sunday before Election Day. Smith, who is leaving her Arena post next summer, will make “My Body No Choice” her final directorial venture as company leader.
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“As soon as the decision came down from the Supreme Court, and Roe v. Wade was overturned, I immediately felt like a second-class citizen,” Smith said. “Here we are back again to where I was 50 years ago and where women were 50 years ago. And then it became what am I going to do? What can I do?”
In her quarter century at the helm of Arena, Smith has championed Washington theater as an exponent of debate on national issues and history: Her Power Plays project, launched in 2016, is in the midst of offering 25 original works over 10 years on political and historical topics. The fight for abortion rights in particular has figured in her programming, with, for example, Loomer’s “Roe” in 2017, a play about the central figures in the original Roe v. Wade decision. The issue has been portrayed in popular plays elsewhere, such as Heidi Schreck’s widely hailed “What the Constitution Means to Me,” which ran on Broadway in 2019, appeared at the Kennedy Center and toured the country.
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A key to building powerful theater around a highly flammable topic is a humanizing dimension. As Smith’s playwrights began submitting their monologues, she found that they were expanding the boundaries of her original concept in highly personal ways. “The project keeps flowering as we go along,” she said. “And it has remained this fierce dynamic, as far as women wanting to be part of this, because of what they feel about how their own choices are being ripped away.
“So one of the stories is about a woman’s choice to be a particular size and weight. That is, not the size and weight the society says she can be. Another one touches on the right to be able to die the way that you want to die. Two-thirds of the writers have also somehow written about their own mothers. And I think that that makes sense. Because our bodies are from our mothers.”
Cataluna, a playwright and journalist who lives on the Hawaiian island of Maui, first worked with Smith on a still-evolving film project involving Indigenous and Native artists. It was her late mother, Dorothy, who inspired “Things My Mother Told Me,” her contribution to “My Body No Choice.” And how Cataluna chose to write about her reveals the breadth of the production’s subjects: Her mother died in 2016 at 81, after deciding to stop chemotherapy.
“I realized that it was the only significant choice she ever had over her body,” Cataluna said. “I started thinking about how few choices she had about anything. Career choices — being a nurse, teacher or secretary, that was it. Other things: She was expected to be nice, she really couldn’t speak her mind.”
She stopped chemo after one dose, Cataluna recounted. “Which makes it sound like a really tragic story. But the piece is kind of funny, because Mom was kind of funny. I know she would love the idea that there’s a piece about her.”
The actors for the eight monodramas are being recruited mostly from the Washington area. Smith is casting an even wider net for another element of “My Body No Choice”: Videos of up to two minutes are being sought from “women, trans and nonbinary individuals” across the country for their accounts. Eighteen of the submissions will be featured on the company’s social media platforms. More information is available at arenastage.org/mybody.
The hope, too, is that other theaters will initiate their own productions of “My Body No Choice.”
“It’s a call to action,” Smith said, “for people all over the country.”