In ‘The Billboard’, a Chicago reporter takes on abortion rights and seeks to portray Englewood ‘as more than the headlines’

ENGLEWOOD — Natalie Moore knew Englewood was the perfect setting for her new play, which mixes race, class, gender and Chicago politics.

In “The Billboard,” the WBEZ reporter’s debut as a playwright, black women who run a medical clinic and reproductive rights center in Englewood must go up against an anti-abortion candidate for city council. A fierce battle ensues as the two sides set up competing billboards in the neighborhood, with clinic workers fighting for black women to retain autonomy over their bodies.

“I knew I wanted a place that got divested during the race for city council,” said Moore, who covers race, class and communities. “I wanted a neighborhood that had more low-income households because it’s a federally-licensed health center. It’s a place where people can go for free. Could it have been Chatham or Roseland? Probably, but there’s something about Englewood. There is a contested space.

“The Billboard” was released in book form this month and will premiere in conjunction with the 16th Street Theater in June.

The play’s central narrative proved timely.

Abortion has been legal in the United States since Roe v. Wade of the Supreme Court in 1973. But some states have essentially banned abortion through controversial laws, dramatically reducing access to health care for women. In 2021, the Supreme Court refused to overturn a ban in Texas that would prevent a person from having an abortion more than six weeks into their pregnancy, before many people even know they are pregnant.

When “The Billboard” takes the stage this summer, the Supreme Court will rule on a Mississippi law that bans abortion after 15 weeks, potentially overthrowing Roe.

“I had no idea we would be in this position,” Moore said. “I thought this game would still be timely, but I didn’t think it would be urgent.”

Halsted Street crossing Englewood towards Chicago Skyline, seen from above Green and 73rd Streets on November 9, 2021.

“This is the play you should write”

The vision for “The Billboard” was inspired by real events, Moore said.

The Afiya Center, a reproductive justice nonprofit for black women, put up a billboard in Dallas, Texas declaring abortion a personal care in 2018. Moore covered an anti -abortion in Chicago in 2011 that featured 30 billboards around the South Side read, “Every 21 minutes, our next possible leader is aborted.” A photo of then-President Barack Obama was sketched next to the words.

While taking a class at Chicago Dramatists, Moore had to complete an assignment that encouraged writers to write a four-page scene about an object. The two billboards came to mind. She had one day to write the scene, she said.

“In most plays, something happens immediately, and then the play is all about fallout, controversy, and interactions with that,” Moore said. “I was like, ‘Oh, let me make up a scene with [a billboard],’ and the feedback from the class was really good.

Moore had previously been commissioned by the 16th Street Theater to adapt her nonfiction book, “The South Side,” into a one-night scripted reading, she said. But when she sent a snippet of what would soon become “The Billboard,” the plan changed, she said.

“I sent it to the art director just to say, ‘I get it, I kinda know what I’m doing here.’ And she said, ‘…I don’t want to tell you what to do, but this is the play you should write,’” Moore said.

Views of a green line bound for Harlem in Englewood on January 28, 2021.

Moore wrote character sketches to “create a fully fleshed out person,” she said. She spoke with friends who write screenplays and asked her teenagers questions to tap into the character of Kayla Brown, a 19-year-old program assistant at the fictional women’s health center, Moore said.

“I spent so much time trying to figure out what high schools they went to because they’re all from Chicago,” Moore said. “That’s what we tell ourselves here when we meet someone. We place them. We judge them. We believe that a high school says a lot about a person. You have to know these characters well for it to work, even if everything about them does not make the page or the scene.

Moore City Council’s hope came in the form of Demetrius Drew, a black man. Drew puts up a billboard in the community that reads, “Abortion is Genocide. The most dangerous place for a black child is his mother’s womb. Keep Englewood Black. Vote Demetrius Drew for City Council.

Stunned and disgusted, the women at the health center add their own billboard on 59th and Halsted. Beneath a photo of black women smiling and laughing — appearing to be “about to toast with Prosecco at a bottomless brunch,” Moore said — their sign reads: “Black women have the right to take decisions for their families and their bodies. Abortion is taking care of yourself. #TrustBlackWomen.

The script-writing process overlapped with what Moore does every day for radio, she said.

“You’re writing for the ear, and that’s the big similarity,” Moore said. “You take the best of the language someone says and put it into your script.”

In the end, Moore wrote a play that was not “a re-enactment or historical retelling of the Dallas controversy,” but rather a story that honors black women and “transcends to other places,” he said. she declared.

“Even though the play is about abortion, it’s more than that,” Moore said. “He attacks the patriarchy. He looks at politics. He is interested in urban development. And I think the best pieces of literature have layers upon layers. I never tried to make it a piece of debate.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Homes in the 7100 South block of Green Street in Englewood on November 9, 2021.

Moore said she didn’t write the piece with the intention of inspiring people, but wanted people to see themselves in her work. And once people have seen the piece, she hopes they will “walk away with questions, questioning themselves,” she said.

More importantly, she wants to see more opportunities for people to tell their stories, she said.

“I wanted to portray Englewood as more than headlines,” Moore said. “There’s so much art in the city, even in places like Englewood. I want all kinds of people to have the opportunity to tell stories and different kinds of stories. There is no singular story, and there should be other representations of art from various communities.

“The Billboard,” directed by TaRon Patton, will run June 23 through July 17 at Northwestern University’s Wirtz Center, 710 N. Lake Shore Drive. Tickets are available here. You can buy the book from Haymarket Books here.

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