I knew from the beginning that comfort was out of the question as I sat in the audience for "Mom Baby God," a one-woman play written and performed by Madeline Burrows and directed by Kathleen Akerly showing as a part of Single Carrot Theatre's four-play festival "Undercurrent: Theatre for Now." The performance is the result of two years Burrows spent undercover in the anti-abortion movement and focuses on a 15-year-old pro-life semi-internet-celebrity as she rises to the top of the Students for Life of America Conference and falls apart along the way.
The play opens with Destinee Grace Ramsey in her bedroom filming one of her video blogs for the website Teens 4 Life. She's preparing her contribution to the upcoming conference, a girls-only "slumber party for life," and practicing her acceptance speech for when she hopes to receive the Lila Grace Rose Scholarship for Professionalism and Purity in the Pro-Life Movement. Lila Grace Rose, for those who don't know, is a real-life anti-abortion activist best known for going undercover in abortion facilities. Destinee calls her "the most beautiful and perfect woman in the pro-life movement."
Minutes into the show, we can tell that Destinee's participation in the crusade to end abortion is clouded by her quintessentially 15-year-old desire for beauty and celebrity. In her video blog, she shows off the new dress she picked up from Forever 21 for her acceptance speech, and muses over how to achieve silky locks just like Lila Rose.
Before her video ends, Destinee introduces her grandmother, who has run the Choices for Life Medical Clinic since Roe v. Wade. Here, the staff performs sonograms for patients who may be contemplating abortion, occasionally typing messages "from the baby" into the monitor like "Hi, mommy." Because she feels her grandmother is "a little old-fashioned," Destinee helps out by making the clinic "feel like a spa"—placing those popular essential oils around the waiting room along with cocoa butter-infused Kleenex, and playing a Spotify playlist of what Destinee calls "soft EDM": "You wouldn't even know that most of these songs were Christian." A social media maven with something resembling popular taste, Destinee is a new generation of religious extremist—softened edges, more or less hip sensibilities, yet still a fiery passion for criminalizing choice.
Her grandmother tells the camera Destinee was nearly aborted: Her fetus began "kicking" in her mother's womb as she lay on the operation table preparing to receive an abortion. As a child, Destinee would go to this clinic with her grandmother to pray. She was "one of the lucky ones." To fight in the war against baby killing is her destinee. God forbid the mixed messages, sexual confusion, and tenderness of adolescence get in her way.
From Destinee's teen idol-postered bedroom to the Students for Life conference—where the Single Carrot audience are not mere spectators but participants—Burrows introduces several characters of the Christian right. There's the suave 17-year-old John Paul Alexander II of the popular Christian boy band Praise Crew (think Justin Bieber with a purity ring) for whom Destinee struggles to maintain her chastity; the brusque Dr. Bryan Dwayne, who in his "Glory of Abstinence" workshop rips a strip of tape off the sleeves of willing audience members to demonstrate the increasing inability for a woman to form a meaningful bond when she has extramarital sex; Amanda, a self-proclaimed "new wave feminist for life" who encourages Destinee to convert her pro-choice peers with the argument that abortion upholds the patriarchy because it allows guys to fuck around (I couldn't help but groan out loud here); and Makayla Roberts, the founder of the Texas-based Heart Beatz pregnancy crisis center and a formidable challenger for the Lila Rose scholarship—and, we find, a bully who seeks out targets both beyond and within the anti-abortion movement.
With seamless and distinct character transitions that rival Anna Deavere Smith's one-actor monologue plays, Burrows never loses the audience's grasp—as much as one might want to tune out most of the speakers at times. In contrast to the unwavering extremism and/or phoniness of the secondary roles, Destinee comes off as a deeply sympathetic character—far from innocent (and not the kind of innocence of the mind and body she claims to believe in), but almost heartbreaking as the community she calls her own prods, probes, and crushes her into an emotional pulp. In the same way the complicated kids of the documentary horror "Jesus Camp" saved the film from being merely a voyeuristic sideshow of "crazy Jesus freaks," Destinee's struggle with herself and her environment frames the ramifications of far-right conditioning through an angle that's nuanced yet still deeply critical and hilarious.
There's no question why "Mom Baby God" is nauseating: Here we see the alleged methods to the madness of religious extremism on the rise once again in the Trump era (or, in this case, the Pence era: Burrows' updated version of the play is set in 2018, after a shift in power made apparent by the characters' worship of "President Pence")—how, even in an age when Teen Vogue is a beacon of wokeness, the most vulnerable minds are seduced, shamed, and threatened into a battle that's gone on way past its expiration.
But I found myself wondering why this is the funniest thing I'd seen onstage this year, when it's a stinging reminder that my right to my body is under threat and, hmm, maybe I should go down the parenting route because someone needs to counter the unstoppable progeny of condom-less Kool Aid-drinkers with reasonably informed, non-indoctrinated leaders of the non-future. I think I'd be just as comfortable with my head stuck in a garbage disposal.
Burrows brings us as close as theatrically possible to a pro-life conference: We wear the blue and pink gendered name tags, we accept the purity rings and somehow pro-life cupcakes passed around, a few willing volunteers offer their sleeves to remove the adhesive power of allegorical duct tape. We're complicit in the brainwashing, even if we believe we are above being brainwashed. But still we squirm in our seats at a distance. Burrows went undercover at these events so we don't have to. And in that distance is where it's funny; we're prodded but not punctured. But as we exit the theater, a pro-life figurehead turns the gears from the White House, Planned Parenthood loses funding, more clinics are shuttered, and as hateful people become more emboldened, that gap we allow our laughter to fill closes.