One thundering slice of the Second City’s 100th revue, Who Do We Think We Are?, imagines a reelected Barack Obama transforming into “the blackest president.” He’s an ass-kicking reformer with blaxploitation swagger. In the theater company’s grand tradition, the show skewers the politics of race, identity and sexuality. Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Ann Coulter and Fox News are (somewhat predictable) ingredients in the satirical stew.
So it comes as something of a surprise when the Mainstage production’s most overtly political gesture happens almost entirely offstage. Midway through the first act, the audience is given an unconventional proposition: For the person who forks over the most money, the cast will improvise based on his or her chosen prompt. Cast members collect and keep the cash as each bid is made. The twist doesn’t come until after the scene is performed, and it’s announced that the pool of money is being donated to Planned Parenthood of Illinois, “whether you like it or not!”
Now four months into an open run, Who Do We Think We Are? has raised more than $16,000 for the nonprofit reproductive-health-services organization. To boot, the bit is an effective instructional exercise, as they say in the show, on “how we really vote in this country.”
The seed of the stunt was cast member Katie Rich’s desire to address the so-called war on women, the GOP’s legislative efforts to restrict reproductive rights, including cutting funding for Planned Parenthood. “Working it into the show was difficult to do because you tend to either sound preachy or it’s just completely alienating and weird and dark,” Rich says. The fund-raiser became a clever thematic tie-in.
“It’s pretty deep, but I don’t think people think it’s all that deep when they just spent $50 to see a scene about dildos,” Rich says with a laugh. “We get a lot of Obama and Romney stuff, most recently ‘Mitt Romney and a Puerto Rican family.’ We had a group of high-school kids who pooled all their money, like $80, to see a scene about boobs. One kid added $3 and was like, ‘This is from my emergency fund!’ ” The highest bid, $200, came from a gentleman wanting to see a scene about funeral homes. The total take that night was $500. “This is so much more effective than any scene we could’ve written,” Rich says, “because it’s literally making change.”
A number of Planned Parenthood employees have seen the show—and they come bearing gifts, as evidenced by the cornucopia of contraceptives in the dressing room. “There are a lot of female condoms backstage!” Rich says.
“We’re just really honored to be able to use the money to help,” says Planned Parenthood spokeswoman Lara Philipps, adding the funds will go mostly to preventative care—birth control, breast exams, STD testing, mammograms—which she says makes up 93 percent of its clinics’ services.
“Overwhelmingly, people in the audience are happy about the donation. But you will hear some boos,” says Rich, a past Planned Parenthood patient. “A lot of people don’t understand Planned Parenthood. They see it as an abortion factory.”
On a recent evening, cast members Tim Baltz, Mary Sohn and Steve Waltien turned the suggestion of “Rod Blagojevich shops for shampoo,” which went for $20, into a jailhouse riff. And when the big reveal came around, the audience offered nothing but cheers. Afterward, a genial middle-aged woman named Arleene visiting from Long Island, New York, said she thoroughly enjoyed the show—except the Planned Parenthood gotcha moment. “I don’t feel it’s right because I don’t believe in abortion,” she offered warily. “You can expect that kind of thing in a liberal atmosphere like this.”