Roe at Stages: When Norma McCorvey and Sarah Weddington Changed America, at Least For a While

The story of Roe v. Wade at Stages.
The story of Roe v. Wade at Stages. Photo by Melissa Taylor

Norma McCorvey had given birth to two daughters and when she found herself pregnant again, she decided to try for an abortion. But it was Texas in 1969 and there was little leeway to do so other than if the fetus threatened the mother's health.

Dallas attorneys Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee had been looking for a plaintiff to enable them to challenge abortion law and they thought McCorvey was a good fit. In short order, she became Jane Roe and a suit was filed against Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade, the prosecutor responsible for enforcing the state's abortion statutes . And Roe v. Wade was born.

A common misconception is that McCorvey got her abortion as part of the 1973 victory establishing a woman's right to the medical procedure. But she gave birth to her third daughter in 1970, years before the landmark ruing made its way through the courts. As she'd done with her other daughters, McCorvey gave her third child up for adoption.

In the years that followed, McCorvey embraced then renounced the pro-choice movement before announcing shortly before her death that she'd been paid for switching sides and actively promoting an anti-abortion stance. She was a lesbian who lived with her longtime partner for a number of years, before leaving her. She became a born-again Christian before returning to her Roman Catholic roots. From all accounts, her episodes of sustained happiness were few.

"She's a very complicated person and at times, an unreliable narrator," says Teresa Zimmermann who  plays Norma McCorvey in Roe, about to open at Stages theater.

The 2016 play by Lisa Loomer now carries a new prologue and epilogue referencing the 2022 action by the Supreme Court that overturned Roe v. Wade, sending the issue back to the states. In cases like Texas, that meant removing a woman's right to a legal abortion except in cases to save the life of the mother — or in other words, right back to where Texas women were before 1973. 

"What makes the show so unique is that we do break the 4th wall, we do reach out to the audience. It's not just Norma McCorvey's point of view. It's also Sarah Weddington's," Zimmermann said.

"There are some similarities between Sarah and Norma but they are from two very different parts of the world in terms of class and I think Norma, she's a stinker. She likes to derail things. She likes to do things her way. But in the beginning yes, they both have something that the other needs.

"Sarah needs a client and Norma needs an abortion." So the young Texas lawyer who got to try her first contested case before the Supreme Court and the even younger McCorvey who grew up in poverty in Louisiana had to work together.

Adding to the controversy, McCorvey was out as a lesbian, not common at that time in Texas. At the time there was speculation about how was a lesbian pregnant, she said.

Kelley Peters plays Weddington, and several other cast members take turns performing a number of roles, under the direction of Kim McKean (a theater and film director based in El Paso)  for this two-act.

"It wasn't very easy for them to work with her. She was a loose cannon." Zimmermann said, going on to detail McCorvey's early life in a poor family rife with alcoholism and  early pregnancies in Louisiana.

The play itself doesn't present the abortion question as a cut-and-dried issue, Zimmermann said. "It is a decision that is to be taken lightly. Nobody is saying it should be taken lightly but it's one that takes into account the human condition."

Despite the seriousness of the subject, there is humor in the play, Zimmermann said. "There's definitely a moment where a costume change takes place that's also a battle and a race and it's very fun."

Any play about McCorvey would have to include fun moments, Zimmermann said. "She's a firecracker. She just does what she wants and I think that element of taking people by surprise is something that the audience will enjoy."

In real life, both McCorvey are dead now. McCorvey died in Katy, Texas in 2017; she was 69 years old. Weddington died in 2021 a day after Christmas in Austin. She was 76.

 "I think that this show does the incredibly difficult job of talking about a moment in history that defined a lot of where we are now and  there are uncomfortable truths that need to be faced," Zimmermann said. "So prepare to be disturbed, prepare to laugh and to be human with us."

Performances are scheduled for January 20-March 5 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at The Gordy, 800 Rosine. For more information, call 713-527-0123 or visit $30-$84.
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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing