"The baby was healthy. But don't I matter?"
Lisa, a first time mother, touchingly recounts her story to a stand-alone camera, her image projected onto the wall behind the stage. The other seven cast members sit in two rows of chairs facing one another, alternately playing the roles of support people, mothers, nurses and obstetricians. Lisa's story is one of eight told in Birth, a play by Karen Brody, written in the style of the Vagina Monologues and based on her experiences interviewing women across the United States about their birth stories. The play is being performed around the world this month (from small towns in Arizona to as far away as Uganda) in honor of Labor Day and the BOLD (Birth On Labor Day) campaign. BOLD's mission is to use theatre as a vehicle for social change, and is part of "a global movement to make maternity care mother friendly."
The run in New York City includes three performances in the month of September and will raise funds for the Friends of the Birth Center, a group trying to open a Birthing Center in Manhattan since the close of the Elizabeth Seton Childbearing Center in 2003. Heidi Miami Marshall, director of the New York performance, recruited doulas to attend each rehearsal in the final week, to insure that an "expert" could give the actresses feedback. They asked questions about noises (have you ever heard a woman wahoo?), signs of nervousness in a birthing mother, and more complex questions about the political context of birth. The play touches on the many facets of maternity care in the United States today, from elective cesarean sections to home births and everything in between. Its conversational tone invites you in to experience each woman's story and feel the pain, joy, excitement and fear along with her as she deals with the cacophony of emotions surrounding childbirth and pregnancy.
At the opening New York performance at a small sold-out theatre in the West Village, the pre-play audience chatter was not your typical theatre conversation. In an audience with a higher than usual proportion of midwives, doulas and childbirth educators, the conversations instead tuned in on relevant issues like hospitals, inductions, epidurals and birth stories. As the play began, a black screen on the stage posed the question, "Do you know your birth story?" The actresses launch into their stories, through which the play made an obvious attempt not to make any woman's choice,(even an elective cesarean section), seem wrong. Instead each woman grapples with the consequences of her decision, her struggle to get what she wanted from her birth and how these decisions were affected by the people around her.
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In a panel following the play, audience members hit on the difficult issues at hand-how do you know when to trust a woman's intuition and when to trust her medical provider? What about low-income women and immigrants, whose voices were absent from the play? What is a normal birth anyway? Each performance this month is followed by a Talk Back-a way for the audience to engage with the issues brought up by the play and it provides a forum for members of the local birth community.
Karen Brody's innovative play will continue to open up the dialogue about women's birthing environments, in the United States and abroad, encouraging women to process their own experiences and share their stories. As the author herself explains on the BOLD website, "One woman dies every minute throughout the world from a pregnancy or childbirth-related cause. As a writer I wondered, why are we not telling this story? And as an activist I wondered, how can we tell this story in a way that will make a difference, that will shift the model of maternity care for women to the mother's needs?"