Cindy Cooper on her Play, “Words of Choice”, Reproductive Justice and Body Image

“Cindy Cooper and Words of Choice are presenting their acclaimed 1-hour performance program on reproductive justice and women’s rights this Fri. March 1 at 7 pm (Eastern) and Sat. March 2  at 3 pm (Eastern) in NY. Can’t make it?  The play will be  live streamed using an online broadcast with high production values and social media to bring people together in support of reproductive rights.  A panel discussion will follow, to discuss the pieces and the state of reproductive and social justice, with Amanda Marcotte on Friday, and Lynn Roberts on Sat., founding Board member of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, and an assistant professor at Hunter College.” ~Trust Women

By Emma Shakarshy

When people tell me that women “have it so much better” than we used to, I usually ask them to specify a few things. What women are we talking about? What years are we comparing? What area of women’s lives are we referring to here?  Women’s progress is not linear, nor can we use one single strand to document “women’s history”.

People are usually surprised to hear that in 2011, more abortion restrictions were introduced in Congress than in any other year in American history. U.S. legislators proposed 1,100 measures to limit women’s reproductive rights, 135 of which were introduced. 92 of those measures were abortion restrictions, which shattered 2005’s record of 35 abortion restriction measures.  That means that between 1985 and 2005, we never hit 35 and now we’re almost in the triple digits. These abortion restrictions force women to attend pre-abortion counseling, to wait 72 hours between counseling and their procedure, and to receive an ultrasound prior to the abortion. (Source)

Many of us have heard these facts before. For some, the “war on women” is just an empty soundbite. For others, it has become a rallying cry for equal rights. But how often do we think about the people behind the statistics? Who is the poor woman in rural Mississippi who will be forced to travel to a neighboring state if the only clinic that provides abortions is shut down?  And how will she get there, if she can’t afford the time off work or the travel expenses? What about the abortion provider who receives daily threats to her home? Or the young woman in Texas who is intimidated by the nurses and ultrasound technicians and feels that her body is not her own? We hear these stories, but how often do these stories come to life?

In her groundbreaking play, “Words of Choice”, Cindy Cooper and her small cast of actors bring these individual stories from the background to center stage. She uses theater as a way to move audiences to action and to shine the spotlight on an issue that marginalizes and disembodies women every day. Between writing, rehearsals, and teaching at Columbia University, Ms. Cooper is a busy woman. This week, we were able to track down Cindy for a chat about reproductive justice, body image, and how we can live stream Words of Choice this week from our very own computers!

Emma Shakarshy: What is Words of Choice and what inspired you to create this play?

Cindy Cooper: “Words of Choice” is a live theatrical performance that weaves together a dozen powerful, funny and contemplative stories of reproductive rights. It’s performed by three actors in an ensemble — each plays about 15 roles. The diverse works in the play — spoken word, poetry, theater, true stories, comedy — are contributed by a wide swath of writers and form a collage of images and ideas. The pieces touch upon abortion, pregnancy, contraception, adoption, trust, body image, religion and the absurdity of the anti-woman agenda. I created it to use the transformational medium of theater as a way to open new conversations about women’s fundamental freedom and rights. By shattering the political chatter, these stories help people make connections about their rights and their lives.  We reach people’s hearts and then their minds and then their activism for the human rights of all women.

ES:  Why is it so important for you to bring it back now? Why did you choose the live streaming medium to reach your audience?

CC: The fight for women’s lives and bodily autonomy is — obviously — not over, and, let’s face it, won’t be for a long time. We need to stay present with the fight, as long as there are people willing to take our rights away or stop them from progressing.  I chose this  new interactive medium because we can reach people who we aren’t able to reach otherwise. We’ve been to 20 states with Words of Choice, but the costs are high and the travel is hard. Through the Internet, we can go to every town and state — even across the ocean. It’s thrilling to think that we can expose people to our storytelling in their homes, dorms, living rooms and advocate support of social justice goals. The live streaming performances are able to let audiences connect via social media, similar to how they can connect at a theater. People can comment on a social stream via Twitter, Facebook, IM. As in the theater, they can bond and share each other’s energy.

ES: What do you hope these live streaming performances will accomplish?

CC: March is Women’s History Month, and it’s also the time that legislatures across the country meet. Last year, more anti-abortion regulations passed state legislatures than in any previous year.  The majority of people are prochoice, but the far right has managed to take over state politics and push through backlash agendas.  We need to be fierce in stopping that, and to move solidify and move forward women’s rights. That takes energy and we want to energize people!

ES: Why is choice a body image issue? How does reproductive justice connect with self-acceptance and eliminating social stigmas surrounding sexuality and our bodies?

CC: We use a spoken word piece by Esosa Edosomwan that is all about body image, bodily integrity and social expectations.  These concepts are totally integrated into choice — choice is about women’s autonomy, bodily autonomy, and the idea that no one can be allowed to invade or override people’s individual decision making about their bodies.  As long as women and cultural minorities are bullied and harassed into fitting into certain narrow ideas of what is acceptable, they won’t be able to exercise their rights.  So their rights need to be strong, the ability to exercise and access those rights needs to be rock solid, and the cultural and social support systems need to keep paths free. Let’s face it: the people who oppose reproductive freedom oppose women’s individuality and bodily autonomy. The right wing is terrified of women’s sexuality and their ability to control it.

ES: Can you speak a bit about the intersection of the arts and activism?  Why did you choose the medium of theater to tell these stories?

CC: Through the stories on stage, people find touchstones for their own experiences.  But, they are also able to see a broader picture and a context and can begin to see connections to others.  They learn that their experiences and feelings are not isolated.  I remember a woman in Kansas who told me “You’re saying things that I’ve never heard said out loud before.”  That’s awful.  Historically, arts and activism have been close allies, and we need to regain that in the area of women’s health and rights to build a strong movement that can fearlessly stand for human rights.

ES: How can our readers get involved?

CC: If readers live in New York, they can come to the theater live on Mar 1 at 7 pm and Mar 2 at 3 pm (The Secret Theater in Queens, one or two stops from Manhattan) and be part of the show and its broadcasting.  That’s the best.  We have a discount for activists, too.

If readers live elsewhere, they can sign up on a Facebook events page. They can tune in to one of the Live Streaming events, and participate in the conversation on the social networks while watching. They can even download a free app! They can also put together a viewing party, using a great Viewing Party Packet prepared by Emma Shakarshy that has activities and tips. While participating in the social stream via Twitter, Facebook, IM, photos, they can connect and make new alliances with other viewers, and also help us make certain that we stop any anti-women bullies from trying to take over. We are declaring that this is our space.  After the performance, people can commit to taking action — and our information gives some ideas of how — whether it’s listening to a friend, contacting legislators, raising funds for disadvantaged women to get abortions, or making their voices heard. Or, making art that supports women’s freedom and rights!

For more information, check out Words of Choice or the youtube trailer. Please add your voice to the conversation this weekend by tuning into the live stream of Words of Choice!

p.s. For more info, click here.

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