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The Feminist Potential of Docudrama: Destabilizing the Primacy of Primary Sources through Paula Kamen’s Jane
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The Feminist Potential of Docudrama
Destabilizing the Primacy of Primary Sources through Paula Kamen’s Jane

On April 8, 2011, Republican Jon Kyl argued for the defunding of Planned Parenthood, declaring to the Senate that abortions comprise “well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does.”1 Statistically, abortions amount to about 2–3 percent of Planned Parenthood’s work nationally, and when asked to account for his blatant lie, representatives from Kyl’s office responded that his remark was “not intended to be a factual statement.”2 A few days later Kyl had his statement stricken from the congressional record.3 The option to withdraw such an egregious statement from the congressional record highlights the problems with privileging official documents as truth-telling accounts and denigrating other histories. The scholastic privileging of documentary theater (which incorporates only preexisting data such as media footage, trial transcripts, or primary source material) over docudrama (which allows a blending of primary sources with fiction) is similarly problematic. Paula Kamen’s unpublished docudrama, Jane: Abortion and the Underground, opens a space through which the appeal of “reality” operates alongside the imaginative potential of fiction, allowing practitioners and audiences a unique realm in which to tackle difficult and politically charged issues, such as abortion. The piece challenges the presumed inferiority of docudrama as a theatrical and historical form by illustrating the evidentiary possibilities inherent in performing oral histories while incorporating fictionalized scenes based upon those histories.

Abortion is a fraught subject, and the melding of oral histories with fictionalized recreations enables a simultaneous reshaping of abortion history to the lived experiences of specific women and a live reinterpretation of those events through created scenes that invite the audiences’ own (re)interpretations. In addition to blurring interviewees’ narratives with fiction, Kamen’s play further develops abortion narratives by bridging the voiced with the embodied. Significantly, two of Jane’s fictionalized scenes include the staging of [End Page 1] abortions—a theatrical rarity. Kamen fictively actualizes the abortion experience on stage by bringing the actual (yet fictionalized, as it is an actor’s body) into the narratives. The “realness” of depicting an on-stage abortion forgoes a reliance on the spoken, which, when considered within the historical context of the abortion debates, has operated almost exclusively by depending on the rhetorical (the disembodied voice of the fetus vs. the testimony/narrative of the woman’s lived experience). Although one can claim that docudrama purposely disrupts the integrity of oral histories—whose very existence is already fragile—I maintain that, in the case of Jane, this disruption strengthens the embodied history of the play (the representation of abortion on stage in conjunction with the interviewed women’s verbatim narratives is central to this) and provides the audience with an evocative introduction to a historically polarizing subject.

In 1969, before the Supreme Court legalized abortion in the 1973 case Roe v. Wade, a Chicago group of students and housewives, “The Jane Collective,” created an underground abortion referral network in response to illegal abortion-related deaths. Upon learning that the collective’s main “doctor” was not actually an md, these women taught themselves how to perform abortions.4 From 1969 to 1973 the group members administered approximately eleven thousand abortions with no fatalities.5 Jane: Abortion and the Underground details this relatively unknown yet significant historical moment, blending verbatim interview-based monologues with fictionalized reenvisionings of the collective’s formation and development. Prior to demonstrating that docudramas such as Jane offer pedagogical and activist merits for feminist theater, I will briefly summarize some of the scholastic criticism leveled at docudrama.

Much of the literature on documentary theater (including but not limited to docudrama) focuses on the medium’s inevitable failure, its unavoidable inability to adhere to accurate truth.6 Further, much criticism of documentary theater questions the documents, historian accounts, journalistic reports, and other troubled mediations of “reality.”7 Although documentary scholars already trouble notions of “truth,” “authenticity,” and the “real,” it merits noting that many of these same documentary scholars tend to treat docudrama pejoratively, deeming it of lesser quality than documentary theater that strictly incorporates preexisting data such as media footage, newspaper quotations, trial...