When I first caught sight of a Madeline Burrows, the writer and performer at the center of new play Mom Baby God, I wanted to head straight for the bathroom and hide. She was sporting a side ponytail and pink hoodie, chatting up theatergoers with a chirpy valley girl lilt about some sort of “Students for Life Conference.” Just as I was about to make a beeline for the can, she caught me in her weird immersive-theater snare.
“Oh my God! What speakers are you most excited about for conference?” she shouted at me with the rapidity of an energy drink addict.
“Um, I’m sorry I have no idea what…” I said before she interjected.
“I know totally! It’s hard to know where to start!” she shrieked. Then before I knew it, I had a name tag, a cupcake, and she was flashing me her DIY t-shirt, explaining that—and I’m not sure if I heard this correctly—“cupcakes save babies from abortion.”
And this is where it’s useful to know that Mom Baby God is a political play that acts as a sort of right-wing movement simulator for a left-leaning audience. Burrows is touring with the performance around the country right now and it feels like a timely piece of theater for our moment in history. Before I could even reach my seat at her recent performance in Portland, Oregon, I got caught up in conversation with Burrow’s character Jessica Beth Giffords—AKA America’s peppiest pro-life teen vlogger and one of the six right-wing characters that Burrows channels during her almost-entirely one-woman performance. Each character, from a staunch keep-it-in-your-pants abstinence Evangelist to an undercover pro-life “spy,” is fashioned from research Burrows compiled when she spent a year attending anti-abortion conferences, fundraisers, and rallies. The buzz and fervor of these events has rubbed off on her in an amazing way. As she has performed Mom Baby God around the country, Burrows has gathered some attention from critics: members of Students for Life recorded the show with undercover video glasses (wha?) and published an expose in The National Review, calling the show vulgar. In response, Burrows to published her own rebuttal in The Nation.
After our brief interaction, Jessica pivoted on her pink Keds (smiley face socks exposed) and turned her attention to foisting cupcakes on two elderly women with giant wood-beaded necklaces and cute gray-haired bobs. I took the opportunity to sneak a peak behind the curtain into the theater where loud Christian rock was booming over a sign reading “Welcome to the Students for Life of America Conference” in curly script. A large video screen ran public service announcements, nicely informing people where all the emergency exists were located.
“Hey guys, the conference is starting!” Jessica announced to the lobby, while hooking the arm of a slightly weary teenage audience member. “Are you so excited! I can wait for the boy/girl purity talk.”
At this point, everyone in the crowd seemed to have loosened up a bit, including me. I grabbed a seat up front. In the back row, two women held up their hands in praise and swayed to the God-positive tunes. The only prop on stage was a folding chair.
The storyline follows Jessica, a budding Counselor-in-Training at her parent’s crisis pregnancy center in an unnamed city. Like a museum guide for the little shop of horrors, Jessica proudly walks the audience through what the Choices for Life Medical Clinic has to offer: free counseling, videos on fetal development, a tactile look at the cervix-ripping tools of abortion, and free ultrasounds. Jessica also makes clear that she’s fond of Justin Bieber, who haunts her dreams and provokes bad, bad self-touching. Per teenage capriciousness, Bieber is quickly replaced with an in-the-flesh crush—a mega-hunk pro-life teen rapper, whose name escaped me because his lines were mostly “Sup.”
We aren’t supposed to hate these characters. In fact, we laugh along with one woman whose conference speech is sort-of Sarah Palin funny. And, yeah, part of me felt really wrong when I mouthed the rally cry, “We are the pro-life generation!” along with her. But this is the kicker of human behavior, folks. This is the reason why when Burrows grins at me from the stage, playing the party of perky Jessica, I smile, too, as if my face can’t help it.
In the Q&A session after the show, Burrows talked about how her work as a feminist can sometimes feel isolating. It’s easy as a reproductive rights activists to feel tired and ineffective. Meanwhile, those crusading against abortion access have religious fervor on their side. Those of us who care about reproductive rights could use a jolt of revitalized energy.
The reason Burrows’ play works so well is because she does not break character. I, as a liberal audience member, already know how I feel about abortion rights. What I don’t know is how a real-life person like Jessica becomes so entrenched in the pro-life movement. Due to Burrows’ stellar abilities on stage, we understand that the stakes are high for people on both sides of the issue.
So if a girl named Jessica Beth Giffords comes to your city, rush out to see her in Mom Baby God. Take her cupcakes, but beware her medical advice.
Mom Baby God is next onstage in Somerville, MA, and Lincoln, NE.
JP Poole is an editorial intern at Bitch. Photos in this review are courtesy of Jessica Neria.