#8: Roe and The Kingdom of Ideas
Updated: Dec 7, 2022
These are the lines that end the play Roe, by Lisa Loomer:
Sarah joins in with great pride. Norma continues, pained.
NORMA and SARAH. No matter what else I have done with my life...
SARAH. No matter what else I do...
NORMA and SARAH. My obituary will always read--
SARAH. (Proud.) She was the lawyer who argued Roe v. Wade!
NORMA. (Broken.) She was Jane Roe.
SARAH. As for the law itself? Its obituary has not been written.
The Justices rise in unison.
SARAH. And as of this moment... (With indomitable conviction.) Roe still stands.
The two women look out, as the lights fade...
The world premiere of Roe was commissioned and produced by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in April 2016. I saw it at OSF later that summer.
My wife and I joined my mother and father-in-law at the festival to see my sister-in-law perform in The Wiz, and play Ophelia in Hamlet. Being a Lisa Loomer fan, I alone snuck off to see Roe.
Though it's one of Loomer's later plays, it should be considered seminal work. As the playwright, she attires herself in a theatrical hazmat suit, handling culturally explosive subject material, and paving the way for her contemporaries, and future playwrights.
Loomer leads by example as she teaches those who will come after her how to be proper dramatists by checking activism at the door of their imaginations.
Loomer explicitly states her goal with Roe in a 2016 interview:
I wanted to look at this incredible inability that we have as a culture to tolerate the other point of view. And I am very interested in plays that are a dialogue, a conflict, a dramatization of two sides of an issue.
She admits, "I don't think it's a popular thing to do. I don't. I think we like our heroes and we like our villains."
When playwrights want to keep the heroes heroes, and the villains villains, you get activism, not theatre.
A playwright, like every other human creature, has a worldview. But the best playwrights don't simply regurgitate their worldview through the mouths of their characters.
They don't give their protagonist the best arguments and dumb down or weaken the views of their antagonists.
No, excellent playwrights throw a piece of cultural raw meat center stage and let their characters fight over, devour, and spit their philosophical presuppositions and conclusions out with equal strength.
This approach to playwriting empowers the audience to receive and dissect the characters' arguments, filtering them through their own worldview and drawing their own conclusions.
They watch with heart-pounding intellectual curiosity as the battle royale unfolds onstage; they get in the boat with the characters and ride the tumultuous waters to the curtain's closing.
Later, in the lobby, in the car, or at home dressed in pj's while sipping wine well past bedtime, audience members continue to engage with excellent theatrical literature.
"What do you think about this?"
These intellectual meanderings splatter the air with ideas, exciting the breath, and engaging minds over the human condition.
That is the purpose of theatre. To inspire us to engage in ideas. To challenge us to think critically about something to the extent that we might have a new and original thought, and, if not actually change our minds, then at least empathize with the other side.
The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum...
― Noam Chomsky, The Common Good
Sometimes, whether intending to or not, playwrights will lead us to discover an objective Truth — an idea or conclusion that we understand on a metaphysical level to be intrinsically "right."
These are the moments of intellectual and emotional transformation, where knowledge becomes wisdom, and wisdom transmutes into empathy.
In the Bible, Jesus is the linguistic master of rhetorical devices that lead to this kind of transformation. Still, in other moments he will pose a question or make a proposition that singlehandedly lowers the temperature from rabid outrage to quiet introspection.
He tells the crowd ready to stone the woman caught in adultery, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her" (John 8:7). One by one, they drop their rocks and walk away in silence.
When religious and government spies were sent to trap Jesus into denouncing Rome or Jewish law, they challenged him, "Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" Jesus replied, "Show me a denarius. Whose portrait and inscription are on it?"
"Caesar's," they replied.
Jesus said, "Then give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."
Astonished by his answer, they became silent (Luke 20: 22-26).
These scenes project themselves on the screens of our minds. We see the characters and the costuming. We hear the dialects of the main characters. Our mind pans to the crowd, and we see ourselves humbled. We pan back to Jesus and feel a moral conviction that causes us to shift.
Good theatre can do the same. Or at least it should attempt its own version toward that kind of critical thinking and transformative introspection.
Our nation is hurting.
We've been watching the cultural divide widen since the Enlightenment, but it's been in overdrive for a little over a half century.
Taking to the streets has left little more than ashes, rubble, injury, and frenzied anger.
It's time to take to the theaters.
What would happen if, instead of violent protests across our country in reaction to the latest Supreme Court decision, the country went to the theatre and watched Roe?
Or, The Normal Heart, by Larry Kramer.
Or Shakespeare's Othello.
Or Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar.
Or The Whale by Samuel D. Hunter.
There is a kingdom of ideas represented by our best playwrights. Represented. Not imposed upon, not crammed down the throats of audience members and critics … represented.
Yes, playwright's have a worldview.
Playwrights are human.
But the best among them somehow achieve a kind of neutral envoy status. They come as diplomatic agents and accredited messengers. They come not as ruthless kings but as messengers in the kingdom of ideas.
They invite us to a linguistic and character-rich banquet and ask us to feast for roughly two hours.
Whether the osmosis is mental or emotional, this feasting allows us to inhabit ideas. To masticate upon them, digest them, and come to revelations of mind and heart that breed empathy over hostility, even while leaving us amid sharp disagreement.
These playwrights have a nuanced and surgical skill: wielding their pens like scalpels, circumcising our hearts and minds with words and ideas that provoke our imaginations.
The best plays encourage discussions, not diatribes — ideas that expand intellectual ventilation, not violence.
Historian Paul Johnson says it best.
Those who want to influence men's minds have long recognized that the theatre is the most powerful medium through which to make the attempt.
While the Twitterverse is exploding with enraged rhetoric and Facebook and Instagram host inflammatory memes, might it be time to close the nation's laptop, grab our coats, and head to the theatre?
Sure, you might need your phone to navigate the traffic. But when the curtain goes up, flip those weapons of mass distraction to silence mode, and keep them there for the rest of the night.
Screen time often leads to scream time.
Instead, let the stage engage your soul in a way that allows you to breathe, think, discuss, and most of all, "tolerate the other point of view." It may or may not change your mind, but it could make you empathetic to the other side; to other human beings.
That just might begin to heal the divide currently ravaging our country.