Rachel Kauder Nalebuff wrote a play for three pregnant women. This is a narrative proposition and an economic one. “What,” she asks, “would it mean to create a play around our actual lives and bodies?”
It is a play about waiting.
Part One takes place in the waiting room of a casting office. The three women are looking for work. They are looking to sell Gregory’s Appliances for Busy Ladies. One is three months pregnant, one five, and one seven.
5 MONTHS: I didn’t realize they were looking for someone so …
7 MONTHS: So what
5 MONTHS: So popped.
7 MONTHS: I mean the ad just said “pregnant.”
What a gig! Selling something. And they’re asking for a pregnant actor.
Nothing says “Busy Lady!” like a pregnant actor.
In this play everyone is planning for the future. Everyone is eating what they’re supposed to eat. And trying to keep up with the latest in health.
They’re in competition for a rare job.
No one gets the part.
5 MONTHS: You know what let me give you my card
in case you …
you wanna do ladies’ fondue night or carpool
in the future.
3 MONTHS: Oh thank you yes!
5 MONTHS: I mean it’s not a formal anything, but —
3 MONTHS: No, sorry, just — the idea of being rooted somewhere,
So much is going to change for me …
And this this is the beginning!
What costs are mine?
What costs are ours?
Childcare is my cost.
Roads are our cost.
A thin dotted line traced around a life — mine. Outside the line — ours.
Take a pencil. Erase, smudge, redraw.
Thus far I extend.
3 Months reenters with vomit on her face, and 5 Months comforts her, helps her clean.
7 MONTHS: Hey, but you know what … Their product —
their EMPIRE, okay, is BUILT off the kind of
mess you made in there.
There might be a snowstorm but you’re still gonna have to walk your dog.
Part Two of the play is all movement. With the noise of our world vibrating through flesh and water — Adele, in passing, through amniotic fluid. (Celia Hollander did the sound.)
These are three solo dances for babies in bellies, waiting. The three pregnant actresses play the babies.
The dances, choreographed by Jennie Liu, are astonishing. Deana Barone, who plays 7 Months, spins and swings her arms. Her naked stomach is visible and it is HUGE. And strange. And beautiful.
“She made me think of Ganesh,” a woman says after the show.
While watching Barone dance, I realize that pregnancy spoils language. It spoils signification. This human stomach containing another human is too large and itself and strange and luminous to stand simply for an idea of pregnancy, the idea of a pregnant actor.
A pregnant body is fleshier than a conversation about abortion rights. It is more particular than the word feminism.
Transwomen raised a finger — um, us too — in the wake of this winter’s women’s marches.
Nalebuff’s play is less about women’s-march-style feminism — that is, white feminism? cis feminism? old feminism? new? — than it is about different sorts of bodies.
Not all babies are born. Not all women have wombs.
All bodies are themselves.
All bodies are changing.
All bodies can wait.
All bodies can dance.
Ganesh, remover of obstacles. Ganesh, patron of arts and sciences, deity of learning.
Each member of the team asks a series of questions in the program.
“Am I able to cry a lot mostly because I’m just so tired? Or am I tapping into something deep because I worry about my baby and the world more? Both?” (Fernandez)
“Might waiting … be generative?” (Nalebuff)
“How has my sense of self expanded? What has been stripped away?” (Syquia)
“If we incorporate or repurpose clothes from our mothers does that translate into a different personal connection onstage?” (Sands)
“What if I burp or hiccup really loudly during the performance…?” (Barone)
“Can we please make more spaces for bringing radical attention to bodies and sensation?” (Liu)
“How can you tell if a watermelon is ripe if you can’t see inside?” (Hollander)
Barthes says it’s possible to have a theory of reading that “dispenses with the signified: reading the Mystics without God.”
He reads for a series of thought-shapes that illuminate things he can’t now see. Regardless of whether the container “God” has the same meaning for him as it did for the Mystics.
What signifies a pregnant belly? What does the word “pregnancy” contain?
Motherhood? Fertility? Future?
Or can certain kinds of performance shake signification for a second —
Empty the container, bring new patterns to light.
Witnessing that tips into participation. Too particular for language.
Too messy to be signifier. To messy to be metaphor.
Deana Barone has a big old belly. The belly has a baby inside. There’s a process. There are fluids — vomit and piss. And Deana Barone is dancing.
Take a pencil, redraw. This much might we do together.
Let’s talk about economics a second.
Reproductive labor doesn’t create a product that can be circulated in a market. Housework, child-rearing. Traditionally women’s work.
Productive labor creates product that circulates. Traditionally men’s work.
Is theater-making productive or reproductive labor?
This belongs in a different essay.
But I’d like to leave a trace of the question here, like a dimple in the page.
The birthed babies are now adults, themselves pregnant. They are doing water aerobics in a pool, and a male voice-over leads the exercises. In between, the women chat.
One has a tattoo of a slice of pizza on her arm and of her mother’s name on her ass.
“Tried pretty hard to get my mom to hate me.”
It’s a curious play because we are so interested in each performer’s relation to earlier incarnations of herself — the mother we saw in the last scene, played by the same actress as the daughter. There are a whole set of vertical relations — forward and backward in time — that coexist with the horizontal relationships happening in the present. Those horizontal relationships are, largely, glancing — relations between strangers.
(Something strange happens when strangers bump.)
A play that squirms away from horizontality alone into a web of relations vertical, diagonal, squiggle-ways. Past, future, inside, outside, parallel.
The web of almost, yes, didn’t, not, sadly, maybe. Relationships that tip towards what might be, spill out into the lobby after the play, the drive home.
A backyard, later.
A living room.
Our president operates in a world of literalism. Stale signification. Of poor, collapsed metaphors.
What is security? A wall.
What is foreign policy? An oil exec.
This is bad poetry.
We need to cultivate all sorts of small human ecosystems.
We need to rethink political economy.
We need to redraw the dotted lines around ourselves.
We need to sing our vastly superior poetics.
In the Skirball Center an empty space becomes a waiting room, then a uterus, then a pool. Shannon Scrofano sorted out a lovely and exciting way of doing this, with ropes and water-cooler jugs.
Instead of water to support their bodies, the actors have high plastic stools for perching, departing, wading forward and back in their lanes against pressure.
What are we lifting for? The baby! The baby! The baby!
In “the industry” many pregnant actors expect to take a year off work. There aren’t many roles for pregnant performers. Audition, rehearsal, and filming schedules don’t often accommodate the physical and economic realities of pregnancy.
3 MONTHS: What if!! Like what if I become …
a really quiet … SARCASTIC PERSON!! or like …
Someonewho … COLLECTS … LITTLE TOY BOATS!!!
Or LIKES the highway or —
I become … a mom mom …
like I actually care about brushing your hair
and … wanna wear fleece vests —
like I actually think they look really beautiful …
it happens to other people, right
maybe it can happen to me!!
5 MONTHS: Just wanna be more present …
That’s what I’m — I already feel like that’s changing
7 MONTHS: Do we change though, you know? Or do we just
do different things …
At the Skirball, alumni of the show came to see the new cast perform. The choreographer, Jennie Liu, was pregnant during rehearsals, though she signed on to the project before she knew she’d be. Shannon Scrofano brought her newborn, Hugo, to rehearsals and design meetings. She also signed on before her pregnancy. The Skirball arranged free childcare during the Saturday matinee.
The week before, there is a Bumps/Works, an evening of work by six pregnant LA-based artists, also with free childcare.
Who knows what? Who talks about it?
I knew a director who said that the content of a show is always the process of making that show.
We were in a backyard. I remember chain link fence, the light of the performance space spilling out of a door. Some litter on the sidewalk, mosquitoes. There were maybe thirty of us. What they’re watching onstage are the relationships you’ve been forming over the last month …
Projects can create their own small ecosystems.
I do love the phrase political economy.
Making a play is reproductive and productive.
first stranger to ever
buy me a drink the charm
of looking disheveled
and looking at whiskey
my bags have bags my one job
gangs up on my other job
Stacy Szymaszek’s Hart Island is a potter’s field of overheard and glimpsed fragments. I want to say sedimenta? The substance of history that escapes linear signification. Burial ground to which we ordinarily don’t have access. Litter against a chain link fence, light spilling out of a door.
The Bumps, Nalebuff’s play, has an airy feel. There were parts that made me think of Szymaszek’s poetry — concrete, slippery, daily.
Sunday night there was a gathering in a back-yard, potluck, wine, fire.
I’m tempted by the idea that there’s nothing to say about a play — that form always falls short — if there’s not a real human situation going on behind it, around it, in it.
In Part Three during a lull in water aerobics, 7 Months is overcome and sings an aria she doesn’t know she knows.
Performance — the joy of just doing something.
The thrill of watching someone just do something, so hard.
“All The Things We Don’t Know We Know.”
“What this would give rise to is a sovereign reading — sovereignly free: all forms of reading’s superego would fall away, for the law always springs from the signified in that the signified is what’s presented and received as final.” (Barthes)
Pregnant bodies are themselves — tethered to nothing.
(“All bodies are themselves,” etc. “Pencil, redraw, all the things we might do,” etc.)
3 MONTHS: What? No, I —
I’ve killed a fish with my own two hands
My scream is so loud it’s like a cartoon scream
I’ve built a barn
I’ve dug a huge pit
Almost everything I know, I’ve taught myself — me
How to walk down the street
How to bleed
How to smash garlic
How high your pants should be
if you have a really long torso
How to cut hair
How to write a sentence
How to thank someone
How to say no
How to know when fruit is ready
How to know when someone doesn’t deserve me
How to make a person who’s sad
all the time
This is a beautiful and slippery play. And it’s an even more beautiful and slippery to see in production.
There’s a poem I’m thinking of:
I watch the road: I am a line-
man for the County. City streets
await me, under lustrous purple skies, purple
each night. Manhattan is a needle
in the wall. While
it’s true the personal, insistent, instant-
myth music cuts
a little close to the bone
& I have to get up early for work tomorrow, still
lots of quail in Verona, & I am
jubilant with horror
because I’m searching for pain underneath
I hear you singing in the wires.
Header image by Arianne Alizio