Abortion is Healthcare / by Jahan Sharif

Jasper Johns, Flag 1954 - 1955

Jasper Johns, Flag 1954 - 1955

We make a left off of the boulevard to take a road that leads to a narrower road that brings us to a house near the top of a hill. It is a nice house, built into the hill’s face; which is to say that it is built on a road that was chiseled out from this earth for no reason other than to one day build this house. Plants held back by the neighbor’s fence, reach toward us over the gate that restricts access to the stairs that will lead us to the front door. The gate is open.  We climb the stairs. My friend stops to pick the fruit of a blossoming kumquat tree. We knock. No answer. I text. We enter. Inside, we are greeted by a group of the magically melanated. I smile. The house is owned by an actress. You’ve seen her in that thing … you know the one. She’s delightful-- a gracious host. We introduce ourselves. She repeats my name back to me and pronounces it correctly. She gives me a hug and encourages me to make myself a plate. I do my rounds meeting the rest. We smile and hehe and haha. We pour some drinks, we use the restroom once more, and we find places to sit.

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to read and to receive this play our friend has written, and the whole operation is running late. You know Black people.

Our brother, the writer, has convened some of his actor friends-- all of whom could reasonably lay claim to being the next Black (male) Meryl Streep … or White Viola Davis. I won’t tell you the name or much about the play, because it’s not done and that would defeat the purpose of the theater; but, you should know that it is extraordinary, it is a play within a play, and though it is a work of fiction, it is a true story.

Mark Bradford, 150 Portrait Tones

Mark Bradford, 150 Portrait Tones

For the purpose of this essay, however, I’ll tell you about one scene. Two characters, both actors— one older, legendary, and from one generation; the other, young, queer-identifying, fabulous, and performing in his first play out of grad school. Both Black. During an aside, the older character tells the younger that he should think more about how he comes off if he wants to keep getting work. The younger actor disagrees. The dialogue crescendos to the point where the seasoned actor basically tells the younger one that he needs to lock this gay shit up if he ever wants a chance at playing a leading male role in a major production. The younger actor counters with the expected response, a variation of, “I am an actor. I act! How I am, should not matter!”

I know this scene. I have seen this scene a thousand times, we’ve all seen this scene a thousand times. And even though I reacted the same way I have before, this time I continued to think about the real life injustices illuminated in the story. As it turns out, that was kind of the point.

This play, which shall remain unnamed and unexplained, employs techniques that draw from a 20th century theatrical movement called Brechtian, or Epic, theater. Unlike with most theatrical experiences, in Epic theater the purpose of the play is not “to help the audience suspend their disbelief, but rather to force them to see their world as it is,” and to think about what they can do to change it to what it should be. (It’s probably no surprise that Bertolt Brecht, the genre’s most famous practitioner, lived and wrote in Munich during the era just before the Nazis took control of Germany.)

So it was with Brecht on the brain that I encountered the news of Alabama’s abortion ban. I can’t say I was entirely surprised that this type of legislation passed in a state like Alabama, which nearly elected an accused child sexual molester to the US Senate in 2017, and ranks second-to-last in Pre-K - 12 education. (By the way, Roy Moore is publicly considering another run.) I was, however, distressed to read an article in the New York Times this week showing how perfectly the Alabama law (and now, presumably, the Missouri one too) sets the Supreme Court up to stack its docket with quiet cases that, individually, will make no headlines, but together will destroy Roe v. Wade.

Epic theater asks its audience to use the stage as a vehicle to honestly “look at their real world.” This is our real world.  And I wonder, in light of this and all of our nation’s history, What would it be like to live in a country where women weren’t penalized for seeking healthcare? What would it be like to live in a country where my talent wasn’t discounted because someone didn’t make the effort to understand my story? What would it be like to live in a country whose government didn’t attack its citizens?

What would that be like?

And what could I do to make it so?

Los Angeles, CA, USA
May 2019

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