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Underground Abortion Brought to the Stage

In a Post-Roe world, ‘Jane: Abortion and the Underground’ gives its audience Pre-Roe insights.

By Entertainment

Illustration by Bei Lin.

From 1969 to 1973, a group of women formed the Jane Collective — an organization dedicated to making abortions, which were illegal at the time, accessible and affordable for all women around the state, regardless of class, color, or financial situation. The underground organization, a branch of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, performed an estimate of around 11’000 abortions.

This is the story that inspired the play “Jane: Abortion and the Underground,” written by Paula Kamen and directed by Morgan Manasa. Carried to the Edge Theatre in Chicago’s Northside by the notorious Red Line, this piece, presented by the Idle Muse Theatre Company, carried me through Chicago’s rich history, back to the last century.

The play intertwined a reenactment of interviews of the real women who were originally part of the Jane Collective and fictional scenes between the characters of the play. I was catapulted into the lives of seemingly ordinary women: housewives, teachers, and college students. The intimacy of the stage setting, which was about as big and cozy as a living room, with enough seats for no more than 50 people, made sense, as the women talked about their struggles and worries, raised their voices in conflict, and shared hugs of excitement.

More than mere documentation of historic happenings, this play is a story about powerful and determined women ready to risk their normal lives and welfare in order to save others. While the abortions were at first only practiced by a doctor — who turned out not to actually be a licensed doctor — they were soon performed by the women themselves, who took it in their hands to ensure their clients’ safety and wellbeing.

The only two male characters of the play, the previously mentioned doctor, a comical macho-like figure who served as a concise reflection of the patriarchal society of the time, and a progressive protestant priest involved in the organization, were largely overpowered by the ten female characters present in the play. While the actors changed characters throughout the play, for instance, the actors playing the women leading the organization becoming the organization’s clients, the storyline remained clear as foldable chairs and an operation table were moved around the stage. During the reenactment of the real interviews, the names of the original women in the organization were projected in rightful tribute onto the wall, which, similar to a home, was furnished with a bookshelf.

As, due to rising demands, the group of women and with it the organization grew, the struggles grew too. The audience was invited to reflect upon the implications of having an abortion, the moral conflict the women who performed them faced, and the way illegal societies function and manage to survive. The police of the time knew of the activities the Jane Collective were conducting but gladly ignored them when members of their own families and policewomen themselves were in need of an abortion.

In 1972, the organization was reported by two Catholic women, and seven of the women working for Jane were arrested. The tears and desperation of the characters seemed to seep through the room as the actors moved around the stage, standing no more than two feet away from the audience, and making regular eye contact with the theatergoers.

At last, however, in 1973, Roe v. Wade was decided: abortion was legalized. The arrested women were freed, all charges dropped. The Jane collective was disbanded, it had no use anymore. The group of women, who had grown to trust and value each other over the past few years, went their separate ways.

As the final scene was enacted, the women stood grouped on the stage, a voice from offstage said “And today?” The characters told their life stories, what they had become — the life stories of the actual women who once led Jane.

Then, the room went dark, and pictures of modern smartphones were projected on the bookshelf in the back. Simultaneously, a chaotic ringing of phones in the room grew louder. Finally, a familiar voice: “God, it’s brutal out here!” As Olivia Rodrigo’s hit “Brutal” played out of the speakers, the actors bowed.

In a tragi-comedic way, this end brought out the sad actuality of the topic this play, first produced in 1999, grapples with. As most of us know, Roe v. Wade was overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2022, making abortion illegal or highly restricted in several States like Oklahoma or Texas. Today, 50 years after the Jane Collective ceased to exist, like-minded organizations are needed again to protect women from unsafe abortions that could threaten their lives.

The play “Jane: Abortion and the Underground” managed to recount the story of a historic group of activists in an ingenuously modern and contemporary way, leaving the audience personally touched by the lives of strangers, all while gaining valuable knowledge about a topic that has not lost its political importance even today. It showed in a powerful women-led narrative, what wonderful things can happen when women unite and take control. It took a stance, calling for action and debate, but still showed all sides of the story. In our current political situation, historical and political plays like “Jane” are more valuable than ever before.

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