Quote of the Day: I’m told that what I’m doing is right, but why does it feel so wrong? Leah, unwed mother in Lily Baber Coyle’s play Watermelon Hill, playing now at the History Theatre in St. Paul, MN, through April 10, 2016.
For my “Good Friday” observation, I invited a friend to go with me to listen to the voices of those who have been silenced for too long, the girls that were “sent away,” shunned, abandoned, and left with a void that could never be filled, the unwed mothers of America’s 1950’s and 60’s era. I admire the playwright, Lily Baber Coyle, for her careful and caring portrayal of this piece of our human history. She wrote this play while she was pregnant with her first child in 2000. Amidst her readings of proper diet and prenatal care, she was reading about the “Shadow Mothers” who were sent to the Catholic Infant Home, in secret, to wait out their pregnancy terms, deliver, and give up their babies for adoption. Her work is inspired by the book Shadow Mothers: Stories of Adoption and Reunion by Linda Back McKay and interviews with the people who are represented in this play, the nuns, priests, doctors, mothers, babies and adopted families.
There was a time when unwed mothers, and their families, were considered shameful. Families could be shunned by neighbors, and fathers could lose their jobs if the girl “got into trouble.” The pregnant women would be fired from their jobs. Boyfriends abandoned them, and their own mothers sent them away to “take care of the problem.” Many of these young women found themselves in the Catholic Infant Home, located in the shadows of the Cathedral in St. Paul, nicknamed Watermelon Hill. Leah, Joan, and Sharon are the young unwed mothers who share a room at the home. They have the same due date. “Must have been a full moon that night in June,” one of them says. Their stories are different, with the same consequence. They are now black spots on their families’ names, and no longer accepted in society. To take care of the problem, they wait out their time in the home run by nuns who will place the babies in “better” homes once they’re born. “You’re doing the right thing,” they tell them, despite the fact that their mothering instincts kick in. They feel the quickening in their wombs, and the stirring in their hearts. They want another option, but aren’t given one.
Today, we have more options and better understanding of what it means to be a mother and to carry a baby to term. If an unwed mother chooses adoption, it is now that – a choice, and she has a say in who will get her baby. They will send her pictures, maybe even keep in contact. Also, if an unwed mother chooses to keep her baby, she is not rejected by everyone in society, although some people still pass judgement, and she has the resources for further education and employment. She has the choice to raise her own child.
Where are the fathers in all this? Don’t they feel any responsibility towards their own children? Don’t they have love and compassion towards the women they were with? How can men and women be made so differently that she feels an overwhelming need to nurture, and he to flee? It’s hard to wrap your brain around it all. Why is all the wrath and judgement heaped upon the woman? And, why aren’t all babies welcomed into the world like they were royalty, loved and longed for, held with wonder, and blessed with a bright hope for the future? If only all children were so honored. One of the best scenes in the play is where the one male actor (Sean Dillion who plays various roles: father, doctor, priest, boyfriend, rapist) and Leah have a role-reversal conversation where HE is the pregnant one, and she the callous chap who chooses to blame and abandon her and move on with his life. It’s funny and poignant and heart-breaking all in one.
Adelin, Aeysha, and Emily, who play the unwed mothers, all play their parts with depth and compassion. This is a complex situation with a full range of emotions. Their stories are unique, yet interwoven by expectations and pressures of the times. Jane Hayes Trow and Sean Dillion make up all the various characters who come into play in each of these girls’ lives. They both brilliantly bring something different to each role, reminding us that people were responding to the situation in the way that they felt was best.
I brought my friend Beth to this performance. She is a director, writer, and actor herself. She and I agreed that the stark and simple set lent itself well to this story. Props are stored in the drawers of the the set. Lighting provides the setting and change of scene. Subtle and well placed music and sound effects create the mood, and the costumes give us time and place, and a little wonder at how those baby bumps kept growing. Watermelon Hill is expertly directed by Anya Kremenetsky, who is able to bring out the subtleties and nuances and depth of character in this complex piece. Please visit the History Theatre website for a full list of the production crew, and for showtimes and tickets. This is a play that will give you a glimpse at the past, touch your heart, and keep you thinking about who we are in society and how we treat each other. Sometimes our need for acceptance in our world is so strong that we do things that go against our very nature to hide the shame.
The History Theatre is holding a free special event in association with this production. On April 2, from 6:00-7:15 p.m. poets, playwrights, and authors will share stories about adoption, being a birth mother and their connection with Catholic Infant Homes. Featuring St. Paul’s Poet Laureate Carol Connolly with Linda Back McKay, Lily Baber Coyle, Ethna McKiernan and Kate St. Vincent Vogel.
Go. Create. Inspire!
Journaling Prompt: Do you have a story about adoption, unplanned pregnancy, the heartache of wanting a child and not being able to have one, or a connection with this story?