By Sarah Downs
In the inventive, heartfelt and entertaining piece Primordial by Lillian Isabella, playing at the Tank through February 25th, six actresses speak the words of real women and people involved with childbirth, culled from interviews Isabella has conducted with women from all walks of life. It is a thoughtful piece of documentary theater that seeks to express the range of experience that is pregnancy and childbirth, and highlight difficulties that receive little to no attention in American society.
Each actress is affecting in her varied characterizations. Nina Fry, Marisela Grajeda Gonzalez, Adrianna Mateo, Jordan Mosley, Rebekah Rawhouser, and Paula Sim honor the women whose words they speak, bringing humor, intelligence, softness and steely will to the stage. Co-Director Meghan Finn and Choreographer Leslie Galán Guyton keep the action moving, in coordinated gesture and dance. Adrianna Mateo has composed poignant music, which she sings with simplicity in a singularly lovely voice. She also supplies some divine violin accompaniment. These elements under saturated lighting on Patricia Marjorie’s playful set energize the Tank’s small space.
The subject matter is a bit niche, but that’s the point Primordial makes. Pregnancy should not be niche. We all should know much more about pregnancy and childbirth – its highs and its lows, and everything in between. Women are thrown into motherhood as if our possession of a uterus means we have a mind and a spirit prepared for this life changing event. Did I say life changing? What about body changing? Men learn even less, if personal experience is anything to go by.
This shocking information blackout is particularly bizarre in a so-called culture bursting with internet content (“hey look, Instagram, spaghetti! … again!”) and a government obsessed with destroying women’s reproductive agency in every possible way. It would be nice to matter more than last night’s dinner.
Government is happy to weaponize pregnancy for its own ends, so it is no surprise that when it comes to miscarriages and women dying in childbirth, legislators remain silent. The U.S. ranks 55th in the rate of maternal mortality. 55th. (I’m being generous in using a statistic prior to the spike during Covid.) This in a country where people pay the most in the world for health care, and we supposedly have every modern medical convenience available – well, if you have money and health insurance — and yet women are still dying in childbirth at an alarming rate. Twice as frequently if you are a black woman. It is criminal.
The flipside — the joy, the discovery, the challenge of motherhood is given more attention in our culture, but in a way that often cuts birth itself out of the equation. Motherhood is fabulous; children are fun; don’t I look cute in my yoga pants? Women used to give birth at home, surrounded by people who understood this mystery. It made sense and it kept women in charge of their own experience. Thank God for medicine – for doctors and painkillers and the machine that goes ‘beep’ – it, but wouldn’t it be nice to flip the paradigm back to its original? Start with a more organic idea of childbirth, with the hospital there if necessary. Curate the medical experience from actual experience.
Primordial has started this conversation. It is eclectic, funny and at moments heartbreaking. It did feel a tad too long, as some moments felt a little dragged out and others a bit overstated, but the overall effect is one of compassion, joy and wisdom. Here’s hoping the show will inspire us to seek more nuanced medical care, embrace cultural awareness and fight for rational legislation. Bring pregnancy home!