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Reproductive rights take center stage in 'The Abortion Monologues'

Hundreds of people attend a rally in downtown Pittsburgh protesting the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Hundreds of people attend a rally in downtown Pittsburgh protesting the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

This is WESA Arts, a weekly newsletter by Bill O'Driscoll providing in-depth reporting about the Pittsburgh area art scene. Sign up here to get it every Wednesday afternoon.

An axiom holds that explicitly political art is a tough sell. And such works can be heavy-handed. Yet artists who engage their material with open hearts can overcome such barriers.

That’s what the folks at the National Council of Jewish Women Pittsburgh Section say they have in “The Abortion Monologues.” Jane Cawthorne’s stage work, first performed in 2009, followed on Eve Ensler’s famous “The Vagina Monologues” (1996). It’s simply a series of addresses from a diverse group of women characters about their experiences with abortion.

NCJW Pittsburgh executive director Melissa Fogel ran across “Abortion Monologues” online and thought it would be a good way to literally “set the stage for deeper discussions” about the issue at the group’s big annual event.

Abortion is a major political issue, and hundreds of thousands abortions are performed in the U.S. each year. But, said Fogel, “I think it’s still something that women struggle to share publicly.”

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Though they’re all fictional, the 16 characters in NCJW’s version of the show (scaled down from Cawthorne’s original 23) are less mouthpieces for talking points than simply storytellers, and they’re not unconflicted.

“They’re very real, complex stories,” said Fogel, who believes the Thu., April 4, performance at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater will be the show’s Pittsburgh premiere.

One character is a woman who, after years of trying to conceive, becomes pregnant with twins but then learns her husband has a degenerative disease. She realizes giving birth would prevent her from caring for him.

“It is a very hard decision for her but it is the right decision for her and her family,” said NCJW administrative director Sarah Altomari, who directed the show.

“I can’t look you in the eye and say, ‘I’m happy I had an abortion,’ at least not in that unequivocal way. But I’m happy I had an abortion,” says another character in an online video from a 2010 production in Calgary, Alberta. “It wasn’t an easy choice, but I won’t submit it for someone else’s approval.”

The play “doesn’t perpetuate this myth of the perfect victim,” said Altomari. As an actor in the show, she portrays a pregnant woman who visits what she thinks is a clinic but which turns out to be a “crisis pregnancy center” where staff browbeat her over her desire for an abortion.

All the actors remain onstage for the entire 75-minute show, the nonspeakers standing in a semicircle behind each monologist. “We really wanted a visible representation of women supporting women,” said Fogel.

After the performance, NCJW CEO Sheila Katz will speak onstage with MC Natalie Bencivenga about the current landscape for reproductive rights and how people can get involved.

A majority of Americans broadly support the right to an abortion. But in the wake of the 2022 U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, many states have moved to curtail abortion rights, and the issue remains as politicized as at any time in recent decades.

Fogel said reproductive rights are currently at the center of the 130-year-old NCJW’s mission. “We really believe increased equity happens when women are empowered,” she said.

The show is a benefit for the NCJW, which Fogel described as an advocacy and coalition-building group that works with the likes of maternal-health funders, abortion providers and legislators. She said the national NCJW was among the groups that recently filed amicus briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court opposing an anti-abortion group’s efforts to limit access to the drug mifepristone.

Can art spark political action? Fogel, who has a theater degree from Point Park University, certainly believes it can.

More information on “The Abortion Monologues” is here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: