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Comfortable making people uncomfortable

Madeline Burrows (above) spent six months going “undercover” and taking notes and conducting interviews to create her play “Mom Baby God.”

Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Madeline Burrows (above) spent six months going “undercover” and taking notes and conducting interviews to create her play “Mom Baby God.”

SOMERVILLE — From the time she refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance as a seventh-grader in Newton because she was opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, resulting in a trip to the principal’s office, Madeline Burrows has not been shy about embracing controversy.

Now 22, Burrows is making waves on a larger scale, as the author and star of “Mom Baby God,” a provocative new solo play about the antiabortion movement that is drawn from what she calls “undercover research’’ behind the scenes at conferences, rallies, and marches held by antiabortion organizations.

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“I didn’t set out to create a piece of theater that would be comfortable for my audience,’’ Burrows said in an interview near Davis Square Theatre, where “Mom Baby God’’ opens Saturday night. “I wanted to create something that would give people a sense of urgency.’’

Her ideological foes are striking back. Last fall, a member of an organization featured in the play, Students for Life of America, secretly filmed a performance of “Mom Baby God’’ in New York. In an interview this week with the Globe, that group’s president, Kristan Hawkins, accused Burrows of “trying to paint prolifers with a certain crazy brush, that we’re all insane and we want to hamper people and want women to go back to the 1950s. It’s the same old mantra we hear over and over again.”

Additional criticism was leveled Friday by Lila Rose, a prominent antiabortion activist whom Burrows has made a character in her play. “It’s clear that she’s mocking us,” Rose told the Globe. “And I find that really sad.”

Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Playwright Madeline Burrows performs in the solo play “Mom Baby God,” which she also wrote.

The stir seems to suit Burrows just fine. A supporter of abortion rights, she says she wrote “Mom Baby God” to give a fuller picture of the message, methods, fervor, and strategy of the antiabortion movement. She considers her play a call to reenergize abortion rights supporters, who she sees as steadily losing ground in the past few years to more aggressive and tactically shrewd antiabortion forces. “The point is to give people a sense of what’s happening with the right wing in order to get them riled up and fight back against it,’’ Burrows said.

To strengthen her own sense of what was happening on the other side of the ideological spectrum, Burrows spent six months in late 2012 and early 2013 attending antiabortion conferences and rallies, tape-
recording interviews with participants, and taking notes during speeches. One event she attended was the national conference of Students for Life of America.

At the time, Burrows was in her senior year at Hampshire College in Amherst, from which she graduated last year. Written as part of her senior thesis, “Mom Baby God” blends elements of political theater (emphatically taking sides on an issue), and documentary theater (employing quasi-
journalistic techniques to gather material).

Hawkins, of Students for Life of America, has other names for it. In a November column in National Review Online, she called Burrows’s play “a theatrical mockery of the work that we do at Students for Life of America.’’

In the Globe interview, Hawkins said that, based on her viewing of the footage her organization filmed, the play is fictionalized and “a gross exaggeration” of her organization and the antiabortion movement.

Nonetheless, Hawkins said, “I’m not upset that she wrote the play. It shows us that we’re winning. It’s a compliment to our work.”

Burrows estimates that 90 percent of the play’s dialogue is drawn verbatim from speeches and interviews. “I stand behind the fact that what you see in the show is absolutely representative of what the [antiabortion] movement is saying,’’ she said, adding: “I had no interest in making up stuff about what they say and do. I tried not to embellish, and I didn’t need to, because they gave me such great material to work with.”

“Mom Baby God’’ is set at a Students for Life of America conference, which the audience experiences largely through the eyes of the fictional Jessica, the bubbly host of a video blog called “I’m a Pro-Life Teen.” Jessica is the guide through the fiery antiabortion and abstinence-only speeches woven through “Mom Baby God.” In the play, the conference leaders mobilize youthful participants in a confrontation at an abortion clinic in an attempt to shut it down.

Against that backdrop, Jessica grapples with her own sexual urges, fantasizing about Justin Bieber and entering into an ill-fated romance with a charismatic youth leader at the conference. Burrows plays all eight characters in the play, including Jessica’s mother, Mary, who runs the “Choices for Life Medical Clinic,’’ and Dr. Bryan Dwayne. He runs an abstinence-only workshop at which he admonishes listeners: “The only way to reduce abortion is to reduce unplanned pregnancy. The only way to reduce unplanned pregnancy is you need to not have sex. OK? Because sex leads to babies.” The play’s ending dramatizes the psychological impact on Jessica of that insistent message.

Burrows says that the characters in “Mom Baby God’’ are composites of people she met or heard. An exception is Rose, the 25-year-old founder of the antiabortion group Live Action, whom Burrows depicts as giving a fiery pep talk to a young audience. The Lila Rose character describes her undercover work at Planned Parenthood clinics and calls abortion genocide and later briefly interacts with the star-struck Jessica.

During the speech, the Lila Rose character urges listeners to go to the nearest Planned Parenthood clinic and “go through their trash and take pictures to document what you find.” Burrows acknowledged that was said not by Rose but by a different speaker at an antiabortion event. Defending her decision to have the Rose character speaking the words of another, Burrows said: “I felt it was consistent with much of [Rose’s] rhetoric and messaging.”

Asked for her reaction to the words of another being attributed to her, Rose replied that “if the writer of this play is actually trying to represent me and others in the movement and our words, it would have been important for her to give me a call and talk about our positions.’’

Burrows said Friday that she had arranged to meet Rose at an antiabortion rally last year, but Rose was not where they had agreed to meet. When Burrows subsequently arranged a telephone conversation with Rose, she said, it fell through on Rose’s end.

When she was interviewing activists opposed to abortion rights, Burrows told them that she was working on her senior thesis about the role of women and young people in the antiabortion movement and made it clear to them that her thesis would culminate in a play, and that their words might end up in that play. She asked interviewees to sign waivers acknowledging their agreement to those conditions, she said.

However, Burrows did not tell them of her own perspective on abortion. “Most people assumed I was a prolifer,’’ she acknowledged. “I wasn’t interested in arguing with people.” She said she did not feel obligated to tell interviewees her own views. “I didn’t feel like I was misleading people. That was never part of my intention,” she said.

The galvanizing moment came in 2011, when House Republicans attempted to deny government financing to Planned Parenthood. It was then that Burrows began conceptualizing the thesis project that would become “Mom Baby God.’’ Her long-term career ambition is to focus on acting, not playwriting, though she does not rule out writing solo pieces for herself to perform.

In addition to New York, she has performed “Mom Baby God’’ in Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia; Chicago; Seattle; Portland, Ore.; and Easthampton, Mass. Future stops include Lincoln, Neb., New York again, and St. Louis.

Wherever it is staged, “Mom Baby God’’ will not contain any voices in support of abortion rights onstage, even though that is where the playwright-performer’s sympathies emphatically lie.

Burrows said she left those voices out so her audiences will have the same feeling of total immersion in the antiabortion viewpoint that she felt at the conferences and rallies.

Her overall conclusion from that immersion? “The right-wing movement has a lot of momentum on their side,’’ she said. “The base that needs to be activated is armchair liberals or armchair activists.’’

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.
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