In “Fucking A,” Shaking the Tree Theatre Reveals the Inner Life of an Abortionist

“This is a play about people trying to deal with the circumstances that life has handed them.”

“Bitch!”

“Excuse me?”

It’s Wednesday, Aug. 31. Samantha Van Der Merwe, founding artistic director of Shaking the Tree Theatre, is guiding actors Josie Seid and Briana Ratterman through a scaldingly intense scene in Suzan-Lori Parks’ play Fucking A. Words fill the rehearsal space like daggers—and Van Der Merwe stops to explain how Ratterman should react to each verbal strike.

“The first ‘Bitch!,’ you challenge—and the second one, I think, frightens you,” she says. Her direction is relaxed and friendly but precise. When you’re producing a play as ideologically and emotionally combustible as Fucking A, every word matters.

Inspired by The Scarlet Letter, Parks’ 2000 play is haunted not by adultery, but a different A word: abortion. The story is set in an unnamed “small town in a small country in the middle of nowhere,” where an abortionist named Hester (Seid) dreams of having a picnic with her son, who has been in prison for 20 years.

Given the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade last June, you might think Van Der Merwe (a fiercely progressive voice in Portland theater) chose Fucking A to meet the moment. But she has long sought to produce the play—and while Parks’ nuanced storytelling artfully undermines much conservative dogma, it wouldn’t fit neatly into a pro-choice op-ed or a campaign speech.

“This is a play about people trying to deal with the circumstances that life has handed them,” Seid says. “I have to say—I have to believe, I have to think—that’s what life is about. It’s not about who’s right, who’s wrong.”

Originally, Van Der Merwe planned to stage James Ijames’ Kill Move Paradise (about four Black men who are murdered by police and meet in the afterlife) this fall, but the audition process convinced her to pivot. “We just got the same message from quite a few of the actors who reauditioned—that this was not a story they wanted to tell right now, and they would rather focus on joy and not pain,” she says.

Over the summer, her thoughts returned to Fucking A. “I was looking up at my bookshelf with all my plays, and it just jumped out at me,” she says. “I felt a mix of excitement and absolute horror because it’s such a big play, and I want to make sure that I do it justice.”

Van Der Merwe assembled a formidable cast to populate the play’s nameless, all-too-familiar community, which is ruled by a Trumpian politician simply called The Mayor (Jonathan Cullen). The other actors include Ratterman as The Mayor’s wife, First Lady, John San Nicolas as the benevolent Butcher, and Kayla Hanson as Canary Mary, the sex worker who is Hester’s best friend.

“Both of these things, abortion and prostitution, have been around since the beginning of time and will always be around,” Van Der Merwe says. “It’s so interesting in this play how [Hester and Canary Mary] have this language that they speak that talks about sex and anything to do with sex—or anything they need to keep hidden.”

The cast didn’t just perform the power imbalances of Hester and Canary Mary’s world—they attempted to understand them intimately. Seid says Van Der Merwe in rehearsal arranged the actors in a line based on questions they answered in character, including “How hopeful do you feel?” and “How much power do you think you have?”

“[In terms of] safety, I was probably closer to the top of the line,” Seid says. “Hester has nothing to lose. She knows that she’s a commodity in the community, so no one’s going to mess with her.”

That’s the paradox of Fucking A: Those in power despise Hester as much they need her. Like her namesake in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, she bears a shameful A (in this case, a stinking, oozing brand seared into her flesh) and is ostracized by callous hypocrites—including a group of ruthless men called the Hunters.

“Hester will say to these Hunters, ‘You’re telling me that I’m disgusting and I should get out, but your wife came to me last week,’” Van Der Merwe says. “Or, ‘You force yourself on your wife, but you think I’m a terrible person.’”

Of course, it isn’t always that simple. Hester’s relationship to her work as an abortionist is fraught—she was forced into the profession and sings hymns for the unborn (while not a musical, per se, Fucking A features several songs). And as for her relationship with her son, anyone expecting an ebullient reunion will be brutally disappointed.

Still, Van Der Merwe—who was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and has now lived in the United States for over two decades—draws valiant optimism from the endurance of storytelling beneath the shadow of political oppression.

“Growing up in a country where there were so many terrible rules and such an oppressive regime…this idea of having the freedom to put up a piece that just stands in the face of what’s happening, it does make me feel like I have more freedom,” she says. “I want to celebrate that freedom.”

Van Der Merwe recognizes that artistic freedom isn’t given—it’s fought for. “Can you imagine if the day comes when we can’t do that?” she asks. “And, of course, that’s our job in the theater. We would just go underground and do it anyway.”

SEE IT: Fucking A plays at Shaking the Tree Theatre, 823 SE Grant St., 503-235-0635, shaking-the-tree.com. 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday, 5 pm Sunday, Oct. 8-Nov. 5. $5-$30.

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