As America votes, abortion rights take center stage at a D.C. theater

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Arena Stage’s lively “My Body No Choice” is a rangy exploration of the multifarious attacks on and insults to the physical and psychic well-being of women. But its unifying thesis is simple and direct: Leave the decisions about their bodies to women themselves.

Composed of eight short, original monologues delivered by eight highly skilled actresses, the evening probably doesn’t rise to the level of consciousness-raising for much of the audience in Arena’s Kogod Cradle. Under Molly Smith’s direction, it is rather a reaffirmation through personal confession of what should not have to be spelled out. And yet, can never be restated enough.

In “Battered Baby,” for instance, by V — formerly known as Eve Ensler, author of “The Vagina Monologues” — a young woman (Dani Stoller) tells how a childhood of beatings and abuse robbed her of her sense of self. “When did my body stop being mine and become a field for violence and disgrace?” she asks. In Fatima Dyfan’s “A Rest Stop,” an adventurous free spirit (Deidre Staples) recounts her navigation of her sexual awakening and triumphant effort to avoid getting pregnant. And in “Things My Mother Told Me” by Lee Cataluna, an older woman (Toni Rae Salmi) reflects on her mother’s surprising decision to stop her doctor-recommended chemotherapy.

The choice is out of character, the daughter reports in Cataluna’s affecting playlet, because “Her mind was trained to obey.”

How one D.C. theater is advocating for abortion rights

These are some of the most engaging of the speeches, all elucidated straightforwardly on a set arranged like a literary salon, with a warm semicircle of comfy couches, chairs and table lamps, situated behind a large Persian rug. The storytellers take center stage in no special order, except for the final contributor, an impassioned young woman played by Tori Gomez who, in Lisa Loomer’s “Roxy,” finds in her rage over the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade her own activist voice.

It was Smith’s own outrage that generated “My Body No Choice,” which is the last show she’s directing as Arena’s longtime artistic director, a post she will leave next summer. It’s a fitting swan song for Smith, who in a quarter century at Arena has often integrated politics and social issues into the company’s programming. Her Power Plays initiative, started six years ago with a goal of commissioning 25 new works, one for each decade of American history, will be counted as a cornerstone of her tenure.

“My Body No Choice” feels particularly mission-driven for Smith. The most important statement the evening makes may not be the monologues themselves, but in reasserting that the nation’s leading regional theaters offer a safe space for women who feel under threat. The production has been timed for the voting season: The Arena run ends on Nov. 6, two days before the midterm elections, and the company says 20 other theaters and universities around the United States are producing their own readings of the scripts.

The eight writers interpreted broadly Smith’s request for pieces about body autonomy; the contributors include the widely produced Sarah Ruhl and noted solo artist Dael Orlandersmith. In “An Uplifting High School Graduation Speech,” performed by Jennifer Mendenhall, Ruhl creates an impassioned speech on behalf of abortion rights that unnerves a Catholic school. And in “Gravitas,” Orlandersmith gifts to actress Felicia P. Fields a deeply personal testimonial about body shaming.

Shanara Gabrielle vibrantly synchronizes with the assignment she’s given: Mary Hall Surface’s “Chance,” a tale that unfolds around the miscarriage of a middle-aged woman. Stoller brings a spiky insouciance to “Battered Baby” that helps us understand the resilience in her troubled character; Staples gives an infectious uplift to Dyfan’s coming-of-age account. And Joy Jones is commandingly present in “The Circumstances of My Birth,” about a woman of accomplishment who arrived in the world unwanted. (The author in this case chose to remain anonymous.)

“My Body No Choice” doesn’t so much break ground as claim ground, for those who look with anguish on this fraught moment in the history of abortion rights. The battle, it seems, is never-ending. Perhaps this evening is best suited to the rising generations that will be called on to take up the fight.

My Body No Choice, monologues by eight playwrights. Conceived and directed by Molly Smith. Lighting, Catherine Girardi; sound, Megumi Katayama. About 80 minutes. Through Nov. 6 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-488-3300.

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