Pulitzer Prize-Nominated Play About Abortion Rights Poses Challenging Questions About Freedom, Sexual Assault, Religion And Life

Keely and Du event flyer

(CW: mentions of sexual assault, kidnap, violence)

In the wake of US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death and the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett in her place, theater company The Seeing Place is producing an online benefit production of ‘Keely and Du‘ by Jane Martin. It is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated play from 1993 about abortion rights which, unfortunately, is just as relevant today as it was then. It’s also interesting to note that the play premiered the same year that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was confirmed to the Supreme Court.

‘Keely and Du’ is a volatile drama about abortion rights. Du is a right-to-life activist, and Keely is the pregnant rape victim Du is confining to keep her from having an abortion. Through the play these two women find a way to transcend their circumstances and the ideological issues that separate them. 

Without imposing any opinion in particular, the play allows the audience to ponder these complex questions: What is the extent of individual freedom? What are a rape victim’s rights? What are a Christian’s realities of procreation?

Given the circumstances and restrictions around COVID, the play is currently available to view in full via Zoom, for a small donation through the theater website. We spoke with co-director Erin Cronican who also plays main character Keely, to get a better sense of the message behind ‘Keely and Du’, the parallels with what we are seeing in the abortion landscape in America today, and how she hopes it can be a way to start a conversation to bring opposing sides together on this issue.

Erin Cronican

Tell us about ‘Keely and Du’ and how The Seeing Place decided to stage a production of this play:

It started when we sat down with our ensemble to talk about the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. For many of us, it was a devastating blow in an already trying time. What could we do as a theater company to honor her memory and take up the charge on issues that meant a lot to her legacy? With as helpless as many of us have felt to make any kind of difference, we contemplated what we could do to encourage action steps that we as concerned citizens could accomplish.   

We started exploring different texts related to women’s rights, but kept coming back to KEELY AND DU, a play about abortion rights, protecting women’s choices, and prosecuting intimate partner violence – all things that Ruth Bader Ginsburg fought for desperately. 

You have been showing the performances via Zoom and allowing digital audiences to see this. Can you talk to us about how COVID has shifted the way in-person performances are shared?

Since COVID hit, everything that we have done artistically has been remote via Zoom. What’s been amazing about this is that anyone around the world who can access Zoom or YouTube can experience our work, which was not the case before the pandemic. This has allowed us to expand our reach so that audiences who don’t normally get to see New York theater now have a chance. 

It’s a very different medium, and it’s tricky to balance people’s expectations when they hear that theater is being produced online. For us, we knew that good acting would not be enough to keep people’s attention, so we have focused quite a bit on production value – adding music and backgrounds to create a time and place for the show, so that audiences feel more immersed in the piece. We’ve also opted to create a true intimacy by delivering our lines directly to the camera, so we’re not only speaking directly to our scene partner but to our audience as well.  

Audrey Heffernan Meyer (L, Du) and Erin Cronican (R, Keely) in KEELY AND DU (2020)

You star in the show and also co-direct it. What kind of preparation did you do to get into the role of Keely? 

While I have never been raped, I have experienced intimate partner sexual violence and still live with those emotional scars. I was able to draw from that while playing her. I also know numerous women who have had abortions. In addition, I have read countless stories and see many documentaries about these topics (as women’s rights are an important issue to me.) So I tried to take every person’s story and let their experiences flow through me.

As co-director, I also studied the right-to-life perspective so that I could guide the actors playing Walter and Du through their journey of playing characters who are doing unsavory acts in order to give them their own humanity and beauty so that the story would be more balanced. We weren’t interested in telling the audience how to feel. Rather we wanted to see if they could put themselves in Keely’s shoes and see how profound the quandary is into which she was being placed.  

Keely is a rape victim and is being held captive by religious fundamentalists who try to prevent her from getting an abortion. It may be a fictional play, but can you talk about how similar these plot points are to real life circumstances today in America?

There are so many ways that access to abortion is thwarted by state lawmakers that don’t agree that abortion should be legal. It’s been said that women have been having abortions ever since women have been getting pregnant, and Roe v Wade made it possible for any woman to have an abortion safely. I would recommend that anyone reading this watch the Netflix documentary “Reversing Roe” (2018) – which is a great look at how states have been seeking to restrict access in the wake of Roe v Wade.

Robin Friend and Erin Cronican in CLOUD 9 (2017) – production photographer, Russ Rowland.

The reluctant relationship between captor and captive develops in unexpected ways throughout the play. Without too many spoilers, what can audiences expect to see in regard to their dialog?

We asked ourselves, “Why is this play called KEELY AND DU?” Obviously, this means that their relationship is central to the story, but how is that possible when ideologies are so different? We wanted to explore how the strong opinions of each women swayed the other to come somewhere in the middle, producing a collective guilt but also a collective forgiveness. It gives me hope for what might be possible in our divided country if only we had a way to truly communicate with the “other side.”

What kind of feedback have you gotten from audience members so far?

I think in general our audiences, after reading the description of the play, tended to skew in the more “pro choice” camp – which is unfortunate. We try very hard not to talk down to audiences who may not agree with the subject matter of our plays, and would have liked to have had more pro-life audience members to engage them in discussion. That said, the feedback has been powerful, and people seem grateful that this difficult conversation is being had, especially when things are so up in the air with regard to Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court appointment. 

You have also conducted panels about action steps for protecting choices. Can you share more about this and why it was an important part of the production?

We want theater to transcend entertainment so that it’s more of a central focus in civic engagement. Our company name, The Seeing Place, is the direct translation of the Greek word for theater: “theatron” means “the place we go to see ourselves.” In Greek and Roman times, plays were used to discuss civic issues and the whole town would participate. We’re trying to bring theater back to the center of the conversation. 

So we’ve created our Action Steps discussion panels to ask: “You’ve seen the play. We know the themes – what’s next? What can we DO with the information we’ve learned so that we can make a difference in our community?” 

For KEELY AND DU, we brought in Dr. Colleen McNicholas who is the Chief Medical Officer for Planned Parenthood. She spoke about what we can all do to help, not only by donating to local causes that protect women’s bodies, but also signing petitions, volunteering at women’s shelters, and sharing information when questions come up about contraception, Plan B, and safe sex to avoid the future need for abortion services.

One of the things Dr. McNicholas said in the panel was that while she was grateful for the funding The Seeing Place was offering (proceeds from our ticket sales were donated to her clinic, Reproductive Health Services) – she was more grateful for the conversation. She said the ability for us to destigmatize abortion in every day conversation was more valuable because that will not only save women’s lives but also lessen the need for abortion overall. This meant everything to our company to know that our work makes an impact.

Carla Brandberg and Erin Cronican in GETTING OUT (2016) – production photographer, Russ Rowland.

What kinds of questions does the play pose about freedom and rights? 

The play asks these questions: What rights do women have over their own bodies, and is there ever a realistic point when some entity needs to take over those rights for the protection of life? It’s a question posed to the courts in all kinds of situations, not only “right to life” cases vs abortion, but also end of life issues with those who are on life support, euthanasia for those who have terminal diseases, and even the willingness to take medication (or not) when illness calls for it.

Who gets to decide? Hospitals train and hire ethicists to ponder these questions on a daily basis to determine what capacity a person has to make their own decisions (or their proxy to make their own decisions, in the case that they cannot communicate on their own.) It’s a fascinating and scary part of our health care system, especially when there are so many lawmakers making decisions about women’s bodies in a way that men’s bodies are not scrutinized. 

The original play was written in 1994, but it’s not a stretch by any means to say the themes of abortion, violence, reproductive regression and fundamentalist religious coercion are still very relevant in 2020. What do you hope audiences will think about most after watching ‘Keely and Du’?

I hope that, after seeing the play and watching the panel discussion, audiences will see the struggle facing abortion providers and how Roe v Wade is at a tipping point in the courts. Nothing is guaranteed. There are two generations of young women who have never lived in a world without legal abortion and if we’re not careful we’ll take it too much for granted. There is a fight at hand, and we need to be prepared. And it should be noted: you don’t have to be pro-abortion to be pro-choice. 

What resources do you recommend for someone watching ‘Keely and Du’ and wanting to get involved in the ongoing fight for reproductive justice and freedom?

Here’s what we’ve been sharing with our audiences: 

First, the work that Dr Colleen McNicholas and her team are doing with Planned Parenthood in the St Louis Region: www.reproductivehealthservices.org

And these resources discussed in the Panel: 

Self-Managed Abortion Resource: reproaction.org/campaign/self-managed-abortion/
Women On Web: www.womenonweb.org
Dr McNicholas’s testimony on Capitol Hill: House Committee on Oversight and Reform
And for anyone who wants to follow our social justice work, they can join us at www.seeingplacetheater.com – and also find us on social media @TheSeeingPlace

I also want to mention that the play is still available online – simply make a donation to The Seeing Place (www.TheSeeingPlace.com) in any amount over $10, and that will be donated to Planned Parenthood and we’ll send you a recording of the play to watch for a limited time. You can make a donation, learn more about the production, and watch the panel discussion.

Erin Cronican in MY NAME IS RACHEL CORRIE (2018) – production photographer, Russ Rowland.