By Delia Cruz Kelly
In partnership with UCI Illuminations, “Is There Life After Birth?”, directed by MFA Directing Candidate Melissa Livingston, had a moving opening night on Friday, Nov. 17, here on campus in Studio 4 at the Claire Trevor School of the Arts. This 35-minute production includes rich emotional performances from seven student actors (Lindsey Chanel, Sarah Medina, Monica Minix, Brook Morris, Molly O’Donnell, Kerry Vang, Ashlyn Weatherford), real stories transcribed from interviews of girls from teen pregnancy home Mary’s Shelter, and eye-opening statistics on teen childbearing and child welfare.
Barefoot and wearing plain white shirts and jeans, the seven actors played nameless girls each describing their own jarring road to teen pregnancy. Every background was littered with patterns of abuse, violence, drugs or neglect. The unfortunate thread weaved through their stories, creating a tapestry of figurative and literal homelessness. One girl was locked out of her house and left on the streets when she was around 10 years old, while others were made to believe they never had a home and that there was no place for them in the world.
Production Designer Desiree Zarate modeled the stage using a Pinterest-inspired look of a typical teen room with brightly colored tapestries and string lights forming the backdrop, juxtaposed by large children’s blocks and rocking chairs around the stage, representing motherhood.
Through dramatic stage work, the actors demonstrated the overwhelming sense of rejection and isolation that pregnant teens are burdened with. In one scene, a girl stands defenseless in the middle of a circle, being attacked by vicious slurs and nick-names from the other girls acting as external voices surrounding her, offering nothing but criticism. The girl was distraught as they yelled “either way, your life is over” and turned their backs to her, even though she was begging for help. Now, abandoned by society and almost every adult in their lives, these girls seek love and attention in dangerous situations involving sex and drugs. Their past abusive relationships have given them a distorted standard for safety, and so they place their trust in the wrong hands. Some of the girls were in juvenile detention, some were still on the streets, and all were in vulnerable and broken places.
Just when the audience is fully enthralled in the despair so aptly portrayed by the passionate acting, the story shifts and begins to lift itself out of darkness. Everything changed when the girls made it to Mary’s Shelter. Founded by Jan Lindsay, Mary’s Shelter (or Mary’s Path) is a nonprofit organization in North Tustin providing a safe home and crucial support system for pregnant teens and their babies.
The mood of the play lightens as the girls circle in joyous celebration for having become part of “a family of choice.” Escaping the brink of destruction, these girls were finally given a home to heal in.
The joy is somewhat short-lived as in a later scene, each girl, standing firm and rigid, gives the grim statistics on the increased risks attributed to the children of teen mothers, from being incarcerated, not finishing school and to becoming teen mothers themselves. Herein lies a conflict at the end of the play where on one hand, these girls have found safety and are celebrating the choice of life, and yet are still experiencing fear, no longer for the future of their own life, but for the life that they have created.
Melissa Livingston, once a teen mom herself, intertwined her perspective on adolescent pregnancies with true stories of young mothers to create an inspiring play that further complicates its topic and asks the viewer to recognize the shame and blame these girls, and many like them, experience, challenging the common perception of teenage mothers.
Mary’s Shelter is changing lives two at a time and “Is There Life After Birth?” is changing lives one audience at a time.