MOM BABY GOD with Madeline Burrows
MOM BABY GOD is the work of Madeline Burrows, a one-woman-show based on two years of undercover research on the anti-abortion movement. Alternately entertaining and inflammatory, Burrows’ piece of political theater channels the characters she’s met in the pro-life movement, restaging in unrelenting detail the arguments mobilized against abortion rights. By taking her show on the road, Burrows now finds herself in the peculiar position of being featured in right-wing media, where she’s been accused of witchcraft and terrorism; and in more sympathetic outlets, where her work serves as a fierce reminder that the battle for contraceptive access, while reaching hard-won milestones, is far from over.
Coming off a Western Mass performance with JD Samson and MEN, Madeline talked to RECAPS about queer histories, camp aesthetics, and the future of reproductive justice.
RECAPS: MBG grew out of your undergraduate thesis in gender studies and theater. What inspiration did you take from writers or theorists? Who’s in your queer canon?
MB: I’ve always been inspired by history. One of the first books that informed my politics was Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of The United States. So in terms of the people I’ve been most inspired by, it tends to be writers and theorists and artists who have a deep sense of history. In terms of a queer canon, that has to start with LGBTQ historians like John D’Emilio and Lillian Faderman. My main focus as an undergraduate was on American history from the bottom-up, and feminist movements in the 20th century. I ended up reading tons of oral histories and primary documents of working-class women throughout the 20th century – stuff from teenage girls who led strikes in the Lower East Side in the early 20th century, stuff on the Young Lords Party, which was a Puerto Rican nationalist and socialist organization based in the 1970’s. Reading those primary documents made me see the power and importance of our side learning our own radical history and seeing what came before us. I always knew I wanted to create art that told the stories we don’t hear in corporate media, I just didn’t know for a while what kind of art. One of the plus sides of that was being inspired by artists of a lot of different mediums. But they were always political. The first political art I loved as a teenager were graphic novels—Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Some of those aha moments for me in college were reading Studs Terkel’s oral history Working and seeing Marlon Riggs’ film Tongues Untied. In terms of theater it was Anna Deavere Smith’s interview-based solo work, Naomi Wallace’s plays which are equally political and beautifully written. Jill Dolan wrote a book called Utopia in Performance where she has this great essay on a production of The Laramie Project that I keep coming back to. This is like my version of that Le Tigre song “Hot Topic.” I love how that song is like a mini-people’s history of radical artists. We need more of that!
RECAPS: What role do you see theater playing in social justice?
MB: Anytime there has been a surge in radical social movements in the U.S., it has been accompanied by an arts movement. But the history of theater or really any medium has been so whitewashed and taken out of its historical context in this country, you would never know. There are some political artists who engage in social issues in their creative work but would never set foot at a protest, but I’ve never related to that. The political artists I’ve taken the most inspiration from are the ones who were not only creating political art but are doing so in the context of a real engagement in social movements. Take Amiri Baraka and Pete Seeger – two great artists and revolutionaries who both just died. They weren’t sitting on the sidelines creating their art. Their art was informed by their participation in movements like the civil rights movement, and it also had a powerful impact on those movements themselves. We often learn about these things as being disconnected, but the history of politics and art and culture are always intertwined. The Black Arts Movement was a central part of the civil rights and Black Power movements. The Federal Theatre Project produced political work for working-class audiences while employing unemployed theater artists during the Great Depression. You also had a movement of female playwrights that grew out of the feminist movement in the 1960’s and ‘70s. A good example of this right now is this company New Brooklyn Theater, which is doing a production of Edward Albee’s play The Death of Bessie Smith. The play talks about medical racism in a whites-only hospital in 1937 – but it’s being performed site-specific inside a hospital in Brooklyn that is slated to be closed right now. So the play has become integral to the movement to keep the hospital open. They’ve been having post-show discussions about race and class in healthcare, and its not remotely abstract. That production is so inspiring to me and shows the possibilities for how theater can engage in social justice movements today.
RECAPS: MOM BABY GOD was recently written up in conservative outlets, comparing your work (unfavorably) to pro-life investigations of abortion clinics. Do you think this antagonism might be drawn from possessiveness over infiltration or exposure as a conservative tactic—as if left-wing projects must tread lightly or err on the side of inoffensiveness? And do you feel MBG plays a part in reclaiming covert operations for left-wing activism?
MB: They learned that tactic from the Left! There’s a long history of left-wing artists going undercover – Upton Sinclair went undercover into the meatpacking industry to write The Jungle for a socialist journal, and more recently Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Nickel and Dimed is based on her going undercover working minimum-wage jobs to expose how impossible it is to live on minimum wage. For me, it was about creating a piece of theater that was honest. I wanted to get their political rhetoric right. It’s funny, because despite keeping things pretty verbatim, of course the right-wingers say I’ve made everything up and the show is a total mockery. They would say that no matter what. But to me that means that they’re afraid of the show and what it’s exposing and getting people to think and talk about, and that’s exciting. I think art that tries to be cautious is a disaster.
RECAPS: Would you say MBG is a camp production? The way you’ve performed these characters… I’m reminded of how queer culture has appropriated its perceived villains through camp and political drag: Anita Bryant, for example, or in a more transformative way, Tammy Faye Baker.
MB: I love this question! I first learned about those political drag routines when I was starting to work on the show, and it was always a question for me—the cost/benefit of camp and comedy in the show. Before I committed to turning the show into a full production, I used to do interactive performances in character as anti-abortion activist Lila Rose, some of which was taken from her speeches and then other stuff that was improvised in exchange with the audience. She sort of became my right-wing drag persona, if you want to think about it that way. But I also tried to stay very true to her. As much as I love camp, I never wanted MOM BABY GOD to become camp. I felt like if left-wing audiences were only laughing at the show, it would let them off the hook. It’s great and therapeutic to laugh at the right-wing, but I also wanted audiences to leave the show with a sense of urgency to respond to the politics onstage. That’s also why I ultimately decided to only include right-wing characters, and no pro-choice characters. I wanted to create something that brought people directly into these right-wing conferences and rallies. And I didn’t feel the need to embellish anything, so what’s funny in the show is also equally scary, because it is very real. There is no safety net of thinking I made this up. There is an abstinence-only workshop in the show, and it always gets a ton of laughs. But that scene in the play is based entirely on a workshop I attended at the Students for Life Conference. So while I think camp can be a brilliant tool, it wasn’t the tone and aesthetic that guided the creation of the show. Honesty was.
RECAPS: Speaking of camp, MBG seems to reveal a pageantry about the pro-life movement: the mantras, the incessant regulation of desire and bodies. What would you say is queer about the pro-life movement?
MB: Wow, well first of all I think if an anti-abortion activist reads this interview they will have a heart attack. I’ve never been to a place that talked more about sex than the Students for Life conference! In regulating bodies and desire, there’s really an obsession with sex, and a lot of talk about how sex with your future wife or husband is going to be so amazing. I don’t know how you can be in a room of teenagers talking about how great sex is going to be and not start to think about it in more detail. And that discussion about how awesome sex is going to be can fool you for a minute. In the spaces I was in, bashing gays was really not a major part of their agenda. I think part of why that is is because the LGBTQ movement has changed public opinion so much in the last fifteen years or so that it has re-framed what is considered acceptable to say. There was actually an organization handing out stickers at the March for Life that said, “Pro-Life, Pro-Gay.” But this is a small thread of the movement, and a lot of that current is motivated by a “love the sinner, hate the sin” mentality, which is equally sexually repressive. There was one moment at the Students for Life conference where this guy wanted to explain to me—totally earnestly, by the way— why sex between a man and a woman was infinitely superior to gay sex. That was probably the moment where I was the most tempted to just rush the stage and describe my sex life to them. And it was also a reminder of the kind of deeply homophobic and just fundamentally sexually repressed politics that guide the anti-abortion movement.
RECAPS: As much as the conservative backlash to MBG has dismissed your work as a ‘mockery’ of the pro-life movement, I don’t think the production comes off as malicious or mean-spirited; in fact it’s pretty easy to sympathize with Jessica, or any number of the characters MBG features. Did you manage any of these mixed feelings in your time with Students for Life?
MB: Oh definitely. This goes back to the conversation about camp. I didn’t want to let left-wing audiences off the hook by just letting them laugh at how horrible the right-wing is. I didn’t want the play to be a bunch of caricatures. The big thing my Director Emma Weinstein and I wanted to bring out when we re-developed the script this fall was how these sexually repressive politics harmfully impact girls and women, and really all of us. The fact that audiences relate to Jessica is great. I don’t think you can really invest yourself in a piece of theater if you’re not on some level emotionally invested in it, if you’re not rooting for someone. But my point is also not to say, “Lets just all hold hands and get along.” It’s definitely not about finding common ground with the anti-abortion movement, because there isn’t any. There’s a humor in how zealous and reactionary the politics explored in MOM BABY GOD are, but there’s also a real tragedy to the internal struggles of people within the movement, as well as everyone who is impacted by those politics.
RECAPS: Justin Bieber and, to a lesser degree, One Direction come up a lot in MBG. Did you pick up on these intersections between pop culture and pro-life ideology while doing research for your show, or have you always been a Belieber?
MB: Okay, now to the important stuff. Remember that Rolling Stone interview with JB from 2011 when he described himself as pro-life? That was the spark for me. All the anti-abortion groups had a field day, because here was this pure, wholesome teenage boy popstar who is being aggressively marketed to become the sexual fantasy of tween girls everywhere, and now he is against abortion and can be used to inspire all those pure, wholesome teenage girls to choose chastity and life in the name of Justin Bieber. That moment was like the right-wing’s wet dream. All these groups started to champion Justin Bieber as this pro-life hero. His mom also produced a terrible anti-abortion movie Crescendo which is about how Mozart could’ve been aborted, and she sponsored screenings across the country that donated money to anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers. Talk about bad art and bad politics joining forces.
I’ve always been interested in tween girl culture in the U.S., partially because I am an unapologetic pop music enthusiast and partially because I once was a tween girl living in the U.S. and as a third grader had many socially constructed sexual fantasies about Justin Timberlake. I think a lot about how girls are supposed to be sexy, but not have sex, sexually available to boys but not sexually embodied and empowered, the fact that clothing stores market “sexy” underwear to nine-year-olds in the same country where most kids will go through some version of a abstinence-only curriculum instead of learning to have a healthy relationship to their bodies and to sex. With MOM BABY GOD, I wanted to explore how these repressive sexual politics affect girls. What happens when you’re supposed to be sexually pure for your future husband but you can’t stop thinking about making out with Justin Bieber? That’s Jessica’s struggle in the play.
RECAPS: Important question: who is your favorite 1D boy and why is it Zayn?
MB: I’m so glad you asked. I just found out that the Westboro Baptist Church recently picketed a One Direction concert and called 1D “sin chasing perverts” whose music turns people gay. So apparently listening to 1D is my root. But Zayn is my fave 1D boy because he is the only popstar I can think of who has this much fame in the capital of Islamophobia, the U.S., while being proudly Muslim.
RECAPS: The recent resurgence of abortion in representation politics suggests that issues of contraceptive access remain contested; in what ways do you see reproductive justice movements maneuvering around markers of race, sexuality, and gender? And how does MBG tap into these difficult conversations?
MB: I think sometimes there’s an idea that reproductive rights and feminism are straight, middle-class white women’s issues. We have to be expanding what reproductive justice means. I think we have to go beyond the terminology of “choice” and talk about reproductive justice, which includes the right to an abortion and contraception, but also the right to have children. It means fighting for free, quality childcare and the rights of queer people to parent. It means talking about sex education that is queer and trans-affirming and fighting back against violence against trans people. It means fighting back against racism and defending the reproductive rights of undocumented women and incarcerated women and women living under U.S. military occupation. I think the more we can connect these issues the stronger our movement will be. Part of what you see in MOM BABY GOD is the ways in which the right-wing is trying to co-opt the language of anti-racist feminism and of class politics. They’re trying to claim their movement as being in the tradition of the civil rights movement. It’s completely disingenuous, but they will continue to shape the conversation about reproductive rights if our movement doesn’t get into the streets as soon as possible and take inspiration from the activists who stormed the Capitol in Texas. The post-show discussions after MOM BABY GOD have been a place to start that conversation, and hopefully expand it. The right-wing has vowed to wage an all-out attack on abortion rights and contraception access in the next year, so I think the need to fight back from our side is pretty urgent, and one that can talk not just about what we’re fighting against, but also what we’re fighting for, which I think is sexual liberation for all people.
MOM BABY GOD continues to tour the West Coast with dates in Seattle (2/27-3/1) and Portland (3/5-3/6).
Madeline is a theater artist and activist based in Boston, MA. She plays drums and sings in the band Tomboy. You can read more things she writes at socialistworker.org and e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.