When Natalie Y. Moore ’99 MS started writing The Billboard, her new play about reproductive rights, in 2018, she never imagined that the script might hit the stage in a post-Roe world. But it's more timely than ever: The play premieres just days after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade.
Set in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, the play examines the fallout that occurs after a City Council candidate puts up an inflammatory antiabortion billboard on the South Side. When a women’s health clinic run by Black women responds with a billboard that equates abortion with self-care and shows smiling women, controversy erupts.
The play is inspired by a real-life situation in Dallas and was informed by Moore’s reporting on an antiabortion campaign on the South Side in 2011 that used the likeness of former President Barack Obama ’06 H.
“This has been happening all over the country, these billboards targeting Black women in Black neighborhoods,” says Moore.
The play, produced in collaboration with GLP Productions, hits the stage June 25 at the new Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for Performing and Media Arts in Abbott Hall on Northwestern’s Chicago campus.
“These are conversations that need to be had,” says Moore. “Because there are various views represented about abortion in the play, now is the time for those conversations — and the listening — to happen. My goal with this piece of art was for people to leave the play having more questions than when they went in.”
“If ever there was a play that speaks to present-day events, this is it,” says The Billboard artistic director Jean Gottlieb. “Natalie’s play holds up a crucial mirror to American society, helping us to face all sides of this topical issue.”
The play is also about much more than reproductive rights, Moore says. “Who gets to speak for community? And how do you do good community development in a Black neighborhood that's been ravaged by racist policies and overall disinvestment for decades?
“I’m also attacking gentrification, which becomes a boogeyman. I’m not saying gentrification doesn’t exist. It most certainly does, but it is not happening in Englewood. But any time there’s any sort of neighborhood change people automatically think gentrification, and that’s really too simplistic.”
Moore, who earned her master’s degree in journalism at Northwestern, is the South Side bureau reporter at WBEZ, Chicago’s National Public Radio station. She says her day job gave her a solid foundation for writing dialogue for the stage.
“Writing audio scripts is very similar to writing a play script because [with both] you’re writing for the ear,” she says. Still, she says, hearing actors bring her words to life was truly surreal.
“I did underestimate the power and the joy of hearing actors read your words,” she says. “You have it in your head what these characters are like, and then someone just — ‘Bam!’ — puts the acting on. The first time that we had a table read, I thought I was going to weep. It was amazing to hear, and not because my words are so amazing, but the actors bring something to it. This is why you do plays.”
Moore is an adjunct lecturer at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications and teaches in the School of Professional Studies’ Master of Fine Arts in Prose and Poetry program. She teaches audio reporting to journalism graduate students and creative nonfiction to MFA students.
The script for The Billboard was published in March by Haymarket Books. It is Moore’s fourth book. Her last, The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation, won the 2016 Chicago Review of Books nonfiction award.
“These passion projects are an extension of my day job as a reporter,” says Moore. “My work keeps me on the ground and on the pulse of things. … These books allow me to take a step back and paint a bigger picture and connect the dots of what I’m reporting on.”
The Billboard runs June 25 to July 17. After months of workshopping the play with director TaRon Patton, who is also executive director of Chicago’s new African American Museum of the Performing Arts, and dramaturg Kamesha Khan, Moore says she’s “super nervous and super excited” for opening night.
“We’ve been thinking a lot about character development and how things land and then sticking the ending,” Moore says. “I can’t wait to see how it all comes together.”