What happens when a teenager wants to abort a pregnancy? Do they need to have their parent’s permission? The new play This Boat Called My Body answers these questions. A production of For Youth Inquiry (FYI), the theater company of the Illinois Caucus For Adolescent Health (ICAH), This Boat engages its audience in a conversation about the murky waters that teenagers must navigate in order to access a safe abortion. Our journey through this conversation begins with the story of Jane.
This Boat was staged last month in Bridgeport’s Palmisano Park, which was created on the site of long-closed Stearns Quarry in 2009. The show utilized the park’s metal platform that appears to be floating on a large fishing pond. On stage, there is a red boat and Jane. The play begins with Jane telling the audience about her hopes to become a doctor while bailing water out of the boat. However, Jane is afraid that she will not be able to accomplish her dreams because she is pregnant. She does not want to have a child at an early age, and decides to get an abortion.
Throughout Jane’s journey, reactions to her pregnancy and her decision to terminate her pregnancy from her friends, family, and past partner—related by the actor playing Jane—makes her unsure of her decision. In addition to societal shame and personal fears, she is fighting to access information about reproductive health and abortion and for the ability to make choices for her body. These common issues that she is facing challenges the agency teens have over their bodies and slows the process for them to access abortion. The shame, fear, and lack of knowledge is the water inside Jane’s boat—a metaphor for her body—it will not be allowed to float.
The play captures the audience’s attention from beginning to end with audience activities. Throughout the play Jane turns to the audience to ask for help. For example, in the first scene we out that Jane has missed her period for several weeks and is worried about being pregnant. After taking a pregnancy test and receiving a positive result, Jane is in denial. She had used condoms, she had taken birth control. How could this happen to her? Jane asks the audience how long it takes for birth control to be effective and when is the right time to get a surgical abortion. Actors direct the audience to take out their cell phones and search Jane’s question. After a few minutes, the audience reports back what Jane did not know: birth control takes up to a week before it is effective. It dawns on Jane that her and her partner had unprotected sex before the birth control started working.
Later in the play, Jane decides to get an abortion, but at the clinic, a nurse tells her that she will need to let a parent know about her choice. In Illinois, teens who are seventeen years old or younger who want an abortion must notify a parent forty-eight hours before the procedure is done. The clinic could notify Jane’s parents through a phone call or an in-person consultation. If Jane does not want her parents to know, she’ll have to go to court to get the parental notification waived.
Unsure what to do next, Jane asks the audience to weigh the pros and cons of each option- phone call, in-person consultation, or court. Actors split the audience into three groups based on each option. After a couple of minutes, the actors report back to Jane. Jane opts for the phone call because it was time-effective, she wouldn’t have to tell her parents in person, and she hoped that they would miss the phone call. After Jane’s mother received the phone call, Jane was set to have the abortion. Jane asks the audience to help her pack her bag for her journey and to help her push the boat into the water.
Each instance of audience participation allowed the audience to become a part of Jane’s support system to help her overcome the challenges she faces. While participating in the play, the audience learned about sex education, reproductive health, and state abortion laws—a goal of ICAH, an advocacy nonprofit founded in 1977.
This Boat begins with one story of Jane, but it ends with the many stories of Jane Doe. After audience members wave goodbye to Jane and wish her luck on her journey, the rest of the actors gather the crowd around to talk about the other experiences of Jane Doe. One actor speaks about the experiences of a trans man accessing an abortion and how the framing of abortion access as a “women’s issue” silences and erases the experience of trans men. Jane represents people of color, teens, queer people, trans people, and other stories of those who are marginalized in the conversation around abortion. By including more experiences at the end of the play, This Boat asks that we decenter the conversation about abortion from cisgender, heterosexual women. It is a reminder that in order for all of us to access abortion we must bring everyone and their experiences to the table.
This Boat Called My Body is a call to action during a time when politicians at every level of government are threatening abortion rights and access. It shows us that theater can be a way for all of us to explore political topics together and can move the audience to action. With This Boat, FYI and ICAH encourage Illinoisans to fight for teens’ privacy and abortion access, and to work against the negative or harmful consequences that may occur because of unintended teen pregnancy.
Samantha Smylie is a contributor to the Weekly. She last wrote about a history of the 1919 Race Riots in April.