The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In a play about abortion, you don’t have to talk. Just listen.

A billboard advertisement paid for by the Afiya Center of Dallas. (The Afiya Center)
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The billboard featured a picture of three smiling Black women. It read, “Abortion is self-care.” The blowback was fierce. Even some Black women who supported abortion rights objected, saying the sign gave the impression that having an abortion was cause for celebration.

The Afiya Center, a reproductive rights organization in Dallas, had put up the billboard in 2018. The aim was to lessen the shame and stigma around abortion. The women on the billboard could well have been expressing relief at having a procedure that saved their lives. But when it comes to abortion, it seems, only a look of remorse would be remotely acceptable.

Natalie Y. Moore, a Howard University graduate and journalist at WBEZ radio in Chicago, saw images of the sign, delved into the controversy and now, four years later, has written a play about abortion called “The Billboard.”

The play opens next month in Chicago, a timely production that can also be seen virtually. It is a battle of the billboards — one side advocating abortion as self-care; the other calling abortion murder. No spoiler alert necessary. We already know which side the Supreme Court will favor in its ruling on restricting abortion rights next month.

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Fortunately, the power of Moore’s play does not hinge on a legal ruling. I read the script and saw a table reading that was performed in D.C. recently. Both were thought-provoking and answered a long-standing question that I’ve had regarding abortion: How can a man be helpful?

I used to think that the answer had something to do with the man’s decision to use condoms or choose abstinence. Prevent the pregnancy — that’s how a chivalrous male would master his universe, right? Wrong.

Through the play, I learned that the only relevant male body part in today’s abortion discussion is the ear. When women are discussing reproductive justice, which includes their right not to have a child and their right to sexual pleasure, the best thing a man can do is listen.

“Billboard” was inspired by the controversy over the Afiya Center sign. It is set inside a Black woman’s reproductive health clinic and is centered around the voices of Black women — the center’s employees, volunteers, clients, the women politicians who want to allocate funds to the center but not at the risk of alienating voters.

Listening as Black women who are on the same side of the abortion debate work through their disagreements about the self-care billboard was especially enlightening. Moore recalled that she initially cringed when she saw images of the billboard.

“Smiling faces on abortion signage is something I hadn’t seen before,” she writes in the introduction to the play. “I never had an issue with why someone would decide to have an abortion; yet the self-care billboard stirred uncomfortable feelings.”

That discomfort gets worked out onstage. Here’s an example:

A Black female politician who supports the clinic — but not if the billboard will cost her an upcoming election — speaks: “The picture of these three Black women hee-hawing … looks like they are about to toast with Prosecco at a bottomless brunch. What is the message? Celebrate abortion?”

The Black woman who runs the clinic replies: “Yes. Women celebrating their ability to do what’s best for their lives.”

The politician says: “Do we really want to equate abortion with self-care? Self-care is bubble baths, candles. A girls’ trip. Wine. Spa treatments.”

The clinic director: “Self-care is therapy, access to health care. Self-care is taking care of your mental, emotional and physical needs. Self-care is stress reduction. Eliminating anxiety. Putting your needs first. And that, for some women, includes abortion.”

Moore covered her first antiabortion billboard story in 2011, when the signage began to appear on Chicago’s South Side. One featured a picture of President Barack Obama and read, “Every 21 minutes, our next possible leader is aborted.”

Another antiabortion billboard began appearing that same year in New York, one rising three stories along the side of a building. It featured a Black girl standing alone on a street and read, “The most dangerous place for an African American is the womb.”

The billboard by the Afiya Center went up in response to another displayed in Dallas by the National Black Pro-Life Coalition. The antiabortion sign featured a picture of a Black mother cooing at her baby and read, “Abortion is not health care. It hurts women and murders their babies.”

Nevertheless, the Afiya billboard calling abortion “self-care” drew more outrage on social media.

In the play, the Black woman politician says she didn’t figure on the clinic using such a controversial billboard; “I was thinking something along the lines of “abortion is legal” or “protect abortion rights.” I don’t know … a message less inflammatory.”

There’s no need to delete that bit of dialogue, but by the time the play debuts on June 23, abortion could be illegal in many parts of the country. A leaked Supreme Court draft opinion seems to make that clear.

The next line of dialogue remains quite relevant.

The clinic director asks: “If we’re saying ‘Trust Black women,’ then trust Black women. Fully and wholly.”

In other words, trust the ones who have been fighting the hardest and the longest for autonomy; engaged in a struggle for freedom from patriarchy and misogyny even when enslaved for centuries. That trust may be more consequential in the long run than any court decision. For it will be key to undoing the damage that the high court seems hellbent on inflicting on women’s bodies.

Moore calls her play “a love letter to Black women toiling locally and pushing society to think bigger and be better.” She says, “Listen to Black women tell their own abortion stories in the play. Listen to the pain, anger and frustration when forces endeavor to mute those voices.”

Listen, men. And learn.