When journalist and author Natalie Moore began writing a play about abortion in 2018, she didn’t anticipate it would hit the stage just as the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark decision that protected a woman’s right to an abortion.
“Abortion is always timely, but I didn’t think it would be this urgent when this play comes out,” Moore, a WBEZ reporter who covers segregation and inequality, told Reset in March.
The Court officially ruled Friday in the case that overturned Roe, after a draft opinion that leaked in May indicated that the decision was likely. As women and health care providers across the country now find themselves in a post-Roe landscape, Moore’s play The Billboard opens this week at Northwestern University’s Abbott Hall.
The new play, published as a book earlier this year, tells the story of a fictional women’s clinic in Englewood locked in a battle with a neighborhood resident running for City Council who puts up a billboard that reads, “Abortion is genocide. The most dangerous place for a Black child is his mother’s womb.” In response, the clinic answers with a billboard of its own.
The onstage drama is inspired by real-world events. Around 2011, billboards with provocative messages about abortion started appearing in cities across the country, including in Chicago, where they featured a picture of then-President Barack Obama and the message “every 21 minutes our next possible leader is aborted.” Moore covered that news as a reporter, but said there was more fanfare elsewhere in the country. In response to one of the anti-abortion billboards in Dallas, “a Black women’s group put up their own billboard that said, ‘abortion is self care.’ ”
“And that helped inspire the play The Billboard,” Moore told Reset this week. In part, it was the wording of that counter-billboard that jumped out at Moore.
“I can admit when I first saw that Dallas billboard, it took my breath away a little bit,” she said. “I had never seen abortion framed as self care and that has a lot to do with the fact that we look at self care through a consumerism lens.
“And self care really goes beyond that. It’s about taking care of your physical health, your mental health and taking care of your body. And for women who believe that that is the decision for them, that is their form of self care.”
The abortion as “self care” wording finds its way into Moore’s play, where clashing billboards are at the center of the show. But when bringing the setting of her story home to “our beloved city,” Moore said she had to “up the ante with the drama” — so naturally, it takes place amid a heated City Council race.
The fictitious battle between the candidate and the clinic gets at the real world questions, such as who gets to speak for a community. But it is not merely a story about pro-choice versus pro-life, Moore said.
“The play isn’t just about people’s dueling ideas about abortion; in some ways, the more nuance is among people who support abortion rights and are wondering how to frame that,” she said.
Moore began working on her debut play while taking a class at Chicago Dramatists and found playwriting is not so different from her work here at WBEZ.
“There are a lot of similarities between writing our audio feature scripts here at WBEZ and writing plays, because in both instances, you’re writing for the ear,” she said.
The difference between the mediums? There’s no editor when you’re writing a play, but there are table reads. At the first one for The Billboard, Moore said she “underestimated the power of what it would feel like to have actors read your words.”
Of course, a play is not merely people reading words onstage, but the result of a director with a vision. The Billboard’s director TaRon Patton told Reset the subject matter, the Chicago setting and the “richness of the characters that [Moore] had created” is what originally drew her to the project.
“All of those things really jumped out at me, because as a producer, and director, I look for projects that, you know, hit me in the gut,” Patton said.
While the subject matter of The Billboard may feel ripped from the headlines, it is entertainment, and Moore wants the audience to be emotionally engaged.
“I want them to be immersed when they go into the theater, and think and laugh and maybe challenge some preconceptions that they had before they walked in,” Moore said.
But, just like her work as a journalist, Moore said her goal with the play isn’t to tell people what to think, but rather, what to think about.
If you go: The Billboard runs Saturday, June 25 through Sunday, July 17, with performances at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 4 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Sundays at Northwestern University’s Abbott Hall (710 N. Lake Shore Drive). Tickets are available online.
WBEZ’s Nereida Moreno contributed to this report.
Courtney Kueppers is a digital producer/reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @cmkueppers.