Sem Co-op Natalie Moore

Left to right: Jane Saks, Natalie Moore and Noor Shawaf at a Seminary Co-op event discussing "The Billboard," Moore's newly published play. 

In a fictionalized Englewood, a City Council candidate puts up a billboard that reads “The most dangerous place for a Black child is his mother’s womb.” A nearby women’s clinic fights back with its own provocative sign: “Black women take care of their families by taking care of themselves. Abortion is self-care. #Trust Black Women.” The latter quickly ignites controversy, kicking off Chicago journalist Natalie Moore’s new play “The Billboard: A Play About Abortion.”

“People aren’t ready to talk about abortion, even if they’re not anti-abortion,” said Moore at the beginning of a conversation hosted by the Seminary Co-op, 5751 S. Woodlawn Ave., on Wednesday, April 14. Jane Saks, who wrote the afterword to the play and is founding president of local artist collective Project&, joined Moore for an evening breaking down themes of race, class and reproductive justice central to “The Billboard.” 

The play’s narrative centers around the Black women who run the fictional medical and reproductive clinic in Englewood, and their heated battle with an anti-abortion Democrat running for the neighborhood’s City Council seat. 

Moore, who reports on race, class and communities for WBEZ, never set out to be a playwright, but said it was a natural progression from her work in radio. Initial inspiration for the play came from an infamous 2011 anti-abortion billboard campaign targeting Black communities across Chicago’s South Side, which she covered for WBEZ. When she began writing “The Billboard” in 2018, Moore knew that abortion would remain a controversial topic for years to come, but never anticipated such a substantial threat to the legal right itself. 

“When this play is produced, Roe v. Wade (may) be gone,” said Moore, referring to the widely held expectation that the Supreme Court will overturn the landmark abortion case this summer. “Even after reading and being entrenched in this work, I didn’t think that we would get to this point.” After years of research and workshopping the play, Moore said the book’s release in March and stage debut this June feel more urgent than ever. 

If Roe v. Wade is reversed, abortion could become severely restricted or outlawed overnight in 26 states, including every state bordering Illinois. In her reporting, Moore said she’s already seen an increase in out-of-state abortions in Illinois over the last few years — some patients traveling from as far as Louisiana — and that clinics on the border are gearing up for a surge should Roe be overturned. 

But, Moore later said, “Roe is only the floor, reproductive justice is the ceiling,” noting that the movement for reproductive justice began in Chicago. “Reproductive justice was started in the city in 1994 by a group of Black women, and, as tends to be the case with Black feminists, they took a more holistic approach on these issues.” (There were also earlier abortion rights activists, like the Jane Collective, an underground abortion network who operated in the 1960s and 70s, when the procedure was still illegal. A documentary about the group will debut next month at a local film festival.) 

The movement soon spread nationally, Moore and Saks said, guided by four core pillars: the right to have a child, the right to not have a child, the right to parent the way you want (with support) and the right to sexual pleasure.

“Abortion is part of it, but it's much bigger than that,” said Moore. “What kind of systems are in place for women, like childcare and (living) wages? All of those things intersect.” 

A a queer woman advocating for abortion rights  in the 1990s, Saks said she was often asked why she even cared. “And I was always saying it's about rights to the body, it's about justice,” said Saks. 

“The Billboard”conversation also marked the Co-op’s first in-person event since closing its doors in March 2020. Co-op director of events Noor Shawaf, who attended the last in-store event before the shutdown, described the night as a “true luxury.”

“This feels pretty restorative to actually get to share space again,” said Shawaf. “Natalie’s book is so rooted in the South Side, rooted in ideas of creatively working through what it means to be a citizen… thinking about how a bookstore can serve its community is a way that we’re trying to connect that back.”

Among the full house were several of Moore’s elementary and high school classmates from Morgan Park. They said they were proud to come out and support their lifelong friend and are excited to see the live performance in June.

A 16th Street Theater production directed by TaRon Patton, “The Billboard” will run from June 23 through July 17 at Abbott Hall, 710 N. Lake Shore Drive. Tickets for the performance can be purchased here.

Natalie Moore, The Billboard. Haymarket Books, 2022. $11.20.

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