Kelly Owens | Performer of the week

In Suzan-Lori Parks’s Fucking A, a retelling of The Scarlet Letter set in an urban dystopia, the “A” on the main character’s chest stands for abortion, not adultery. Currently starring as abortionist Hester Smith in UrbanTheater Company’s intense production of Fucking A, Kelly Owens gives a stirring performance as a woman trampled by society who refuses to give up hope. Raised in Gary, Indiana and a graduate of Northwestern University, Owens first began pursuing work in performance as a singer with various small bands. She discovered a passion for theater after taking acting classes, and Parks’s play has her taking on one of the toughest roles of her career. Owens spoke with us about how the play relates to current discussions of women’s rights, the biggest challenges of the role, and how deep her research into the life of an abortionist went.

Were you familiar with Fucking A or its companion piece, In the Blood, before being cast?

It was definitely on my radar, but sort of in the distance. I had heard of Suzan-Lori Parks, I had been aware of the play Venus because the Sarah Baartman story was always such an interesting story to me, the treatment of this black woman through history. I knew that she was someone who was really revered, but this specific play I wasn’t aware of until I started talking to [co-star] Madrid [St. Angelo] about it, and he made me aware of its importance and how he really had a serious passion for it and thought I’d be a good fit for the role. So that’s when I really developed an interest in it. I just heard a voice that I wasn’t used to hearing in theater. Her language is so economical but so rich with meaning on so many different levels, and she’s just a brilliant writer. It’s really an exciting experience to discover new colors in her writing. Once I started doing research on it, I really fell in love with it.

How do you think the play is relevant to current discussions regarding women's rights?

I think the subject matter of the play is something that is really timely now.  It wasn’t planned to be that way, but we are hearing so much now about how women’s basic rights are being questioned. We’re having debates that we thought had been settled decades ago, again. Women are usually the political football, and have been throughout history, and it’s an interesting thing that’s sort of reemerged.

Also, considering what’s happening with the racial issue that’s bubbling to the surface, the issue of Trayvon Martin in the news. How young black men have to be hyper-vigilant about their own safety, how parents have to watch out for them, how they’re constantly in a position where they can easily fall from the path which you hope they would travel.

Those issues are important, and all the central issue of how politics—you’re seeing the two-tiered society slowly starting to emerge here, whereas it has existed as the norm in many societies since the beginning. The great American experiment is now being challenged by the concept of the powerful now holding all the cards and the people holding very few to none. Those three things really resonated with me.

How did you get into Hester's mind? Was there anything specific you latched on to that helped make the character real for you?

What made the play come to life is that it’s just about a human story, about a mother and her child. We all have mothers, we can all relate to the power of that relationship, and how sometimes your mother is the only friend you have. You never question that she’s going to be there for you. Not for all cases, but I think in general sometimes people’s only friend is their mom, and they need to respect that relationship as well.

What was the most challenging part of the process for you?

I think the most challenging aspect, but also the most enjoyable, has been stretching out of the way I’m normally cast. There is an archetype of the black mother that exists in theater. Physically very imposing, large. I’m not a large woman. That sort of goes against what has been the known archetype. Personality-wise, I’m very upbeat and very sunny. I would hate to describe myself that way, but that’s sort of the way I feel I come across to people. Hester has had a very difficult life. It’s very hard to make her smile. She’s been in torment for 20 years, so getting in touch with the darker parts of my personality, the feeling of having that inner strength in spite of being completely besieged by problems, is something I really had to find and work for.

And the way I found it was to think about the women throughout my history who have really borne a serious burden to keep their families together. To do whatever they had to do in order to maintain some sense of order in a world that was chaotic and pretty much stacked against them. So I thought about distant relatives, older relatives. My grandmother was a chief inspiration. She cleaned houses for the rich people, she took care of other people’s children, she kept our family together in many ways. She was the matriarch and a pillar of strength, so before I go on I ask her to come back: “Be with me through this performance, talk to me through this character.” That’s really how I made sure I got in touch with the essence of who Hester is and how I feel that I can breathe life into her on stage.

Did you do any research into the details of an abortionist’s life to prepare for the role?

Yes, absolutely. Courtney Berne, who’s in our cast, has been a wonderful support. She used to work at Planned Parenthood. She was so generous, and she did her master’s thesis on abortion. She actually loaned me a lot of research on the abortion movement, and I’ve definitely taken advantage of that. But the most poignant connection that she helped establish was an appointment with an organization that performs procedures [the organization wishes to remain anonymous], and I had the opportunity to witness one before the role. I was in the room, and it was truly a life-changing experience. I had never seen one, and it was really very powerful, very impactful, and really what pushed me over into this character fully was to see what happens in the room.

Where I was, there was a female physician, female nurse, the woman that was having the procedure done, and an apprentice as well. And to see these women take care of this woman at her lowest moment, to hold her hand, to hold the container when she got sick because she was in so much pain, it just transported me to a time when women took care of each other. This is a private, intimate moment that very few people see, and it gave me so much perspective on how serious the issue is, how it’s not something that people undergo lightly, and how I had a responsibility to respect what people go through when they decide to have an abortion. It was really intense, and I saw everything that happened. Everything. It was definitely something that gives my performance more depth.

UrbanTheater Company’s Fucking A runs through April 15 at Beacon Street Hull House (4520 N Beacon St, Read our review of Fucking A.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)