Growing up in Kingston, Jamaica, the poet Staceyann Chin spent her teenage years terrified of getting pregnant. “Every Bible lesson, biology lesson, and casual reference to the future was marked with the warning: if you get pregnant, your life is over,” she wrote later.
When Chin began dating women, she was relieved, thinking that this panic would no longer be a part of her life. But at 35, after yet another debilitating breakup, Chin woke up from her solitary life in a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, haunted by a wholly different inconvenient truth: despite the fact that she had no partner, no stable income and no medical benefits, she wanted to have a baby.
After spending a number of years on the New York arts scene as a spoken word poet, publishing her memoir, making an appearance on Oprah, and cutting a swathe through Brooklyn’s feminist lesbian dating scene, she started thinking about this baby. Placing a bun in the oven wouldn’t be an easy feat without a sperm source, whether it be a suitable male candidate or insemination. She went with the former and enlisted an artist friend. But after an incident involving a needleless syringe and a soy sauce dipping dish, doctors discovered a fibroid on her uterus — a rather inconvenient location for someone hoping to get pregnant.
Chin was forced to put her mission on hold while she underwent a painful operation and several rounds of drugs which, she said, turned her into a “crazy woman.” Once recovered, she again embarked on an aggressive campaign to find a donor who was simultaneously smart, good-looking, and okay with signing away his parental rights. All her male friends, she said, kind of got “weird” on her.
Getting pregnant turned out to be expensive, excruciating, and socially awkward, but also hilarious and exhilarating. She realized it was perfect material for a one-woman show: MotherStruck!, directed by Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City), is now running at the Culture Project’s Lynn Redgrave Theater in Noho.
I met Chin at the empty theater on Bleecker Street. She wore a surf-brand hoodie and sneakers, and her head was crowned by a bright maroon mohawk, an edgy departure from her hair’s usual flowing voluminosity. It was an hour or two before rehearsal and she’d been spooning oatmeal from a small plastic tupperware.
Even when Chin’s not performing, you can feel the controlled intensity of her big brown eyes when she turns them on you. She seems more serious in person than the comedy of her show suggests. “I’m one of those people who struggles with the meaning of life,” she told me. “I already struggle with my own story in the context of my identity, and I struggle more so trying to find belonging or family, because my mother left when I was a baby. I didn’t have a relationship with my father, and the people who raised me had serious challenges with being caretakers. The way I make sense of it is to write. ”
After her daughter Zuri was born, Chin approached Nixon (best known as the type-a lawyer, Miranda, on Sex and the City) about directing MotherStruck!. Chin had already blogged about much of her experience for The Huffington Post, and it seemed like an obvious narrative arc.
The two had met years earlier– impressed by Chin’s performance in Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam on Broadway, Nixon introduced herself. Chin didn’t know much about Nixon (“She wasn’t a fan of Sex and the City,” Nixon joked), but she did know that they shared some experiences. A little more than a decade ago, Nixon stoked tabloid interest when, after leaving the father of her two children, she married education activist Christine Marinoni. The couple’s son, Max Ellington, was born in 2011.
These days Nixon is no longer immediately recognizable as Miranda, having shed the character’s signature red hair for a wheat-blonde crop that illuminates her fair skin. “In our quest for my wife to have a baby, we encountered a lot of the same issues with fertility and miscarriage and stuff,” she explained. “When you’re both women, there’s that question of: ‘Where is this sperm going to come from? Is it going to come from a sperm bank, or someone that you know?'” Both Nixon and Staceyann happened to have chosen the latter. “[But] what is that person’s role in your kid’s life?” Nixon asked. “There was a lot that I identified with [in the show], and I think for women who are mothers or are thinking of becoming mothers, it’s going to resonate with them.”
I asked Nixon whether she considers MotherStruck! message theatre. “There’s an old saying in theater, which goes: ‘If you’ve got a message, call Western Union.’ One of the things I pushed really hard is that this is not agitprop. The audience roots for Staceyann, but we didn’t want to produce a picture of her being perfect while the world is against her.” On the other hand, said Chin, it’s activism that compels her to make art. “If everything were right in the world, I don’t think I’d have the impetus to make art. My art is definitely fed and sustained by the wrongs I see in the world that I desire to right, and to write.’”
There is a powerful scene in MotherStruck! when Chin’s character is attacked by a misogynistic, homophobic Twitter troll. “He spews all this filth at her,” explained Nixon, “and even so, she has the presence of mind to think, ‘Does he have a point?’ And, ‘What if I have no business being a mother?’ Of course, then he goes too far and she eviscerates him, but we wanted to show her fears and insecurities and the times she thinks she’s messed up.”
I was curious about whether that kind of incident still plagues Chin in her everyday life. “Absolutely,” she responded. The scene is based on something that happened when her daughter was very young. She’s since started the Living Room Protests, a series of topical protest vlogs she makes with Zuri, now three years old. “We recently spoke about Planned Parenthood. If you go to my YouTube channel you can see the kinds of things people say, ‘You’re a murderer and a coward,’ throwing these darts at me and Zuri.” While she’s no stranger to criticism, she sometimes wonders whether she is unwisely placing Zuri in the line of fire. “It makes me wonder, am I doing the right thing? But we’re an activist family, that’s who we are,” Chin said. “She may choose to get out of it one day but as long as it seems like she’s enjoying it and she is enjoying her voice, I’m going to make space for that.”
This led us to the subject of how– as an artist, activist, blogger, and memoirist– Chin navigates making her personal life public. “We live in the age of the memoir,” she said. “From the reality TV shows that we watch as voyeurs, to the biography films about the lives of Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. The minute you say this was a real story lived by someone, it ups the ante, it gives people a way into the story and a way to engage with the story outside of the story. There’s this obsession with our lives and what they mean.” Is any of it difficult? I asked. She hesitated for a moment. “People sometimes feel that they know you better than they do.”
With shades of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, a hint of Janet Fitch’s White Oleander and Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?, MotherStruck! navigates not only Chin’s yearning for motherhood, but also the difficult relationship with her own mother, who left her when she was a baby. Chin was raised by her flinty aunt in Jamaica and, her play suggests, the two came to mutually resent each other. “I think it’s time for the mother-daughter story to get as much time as the father-son story,” she said. “I want to encourage those women who have been having these experiences and keeping them quiet because there’s so much shame and so much judgment. It’s time for us to come out of the closet and step into who we are as women, who want to be mothers, who don’t want to be as mothers, who have had challenges being mothers. We matter. Whether we are partnered, whether we have full-time jobs, whether we fit the traditional mold of mother, whether we were mothered or not mothered, we matter.”
MotherStruck!, co-produced by The Culture Project and Rosie O’Donnell, is running at the Lynn Redgrave Theater, 45 Bleecker Street through January 29th, 2016: $24 – $84