Playwright puts racism in health care on the stage



Harrison David Rivers

“Weathering,” a play that premiered last fall, takes on a public health crisis. The story centers on the grief that women carry after having a stillbirth, how they cope with it and why. But it also addresses the link between pervasive racism in health care and the concerning maternal and infant mortality rates in Black women that are much higher than those in their white counterparts. 

Harrison David Rivers, the playwright, said he was inspired to write a play that addressed the troubling trends after reading an article about the pregnancy and childbirth experiences of a young Black woman that was written by journalist and author Linda Villarosa. The play was commissioned by Penumbra Theatre, a stage company based in an African American neighborhood in St. Paul, Minn. that was August Wilson’s home theater for several years.

When I heard about it from an NPR story, I wanted to know what had compelled the playwright to write it, and what he thought about media coverage of the subject. In interviews, Rivers and Vinecia Coleman, the actor who plays the female lead in the play, made observations and comments that raised questions about how we report on health disparities and equity: How do we ask our sources to share traumatic experiences? How do we choose the sources we interview? How do we keep our class and cultural prejudices in check? 

Although he was aware of the ways discrimination affects the quality of health, the 2018 article in The New York Times “concretized it in a such a way that it felt a bit like a sledgehammer that you know it’s coming,” said Rivers, who has also written works about how his HIV diagnosis has affected his relationship with his husband and family.                    

Black Americans are ‘not a monolith’

The play’s title — “Weathering”— refers to the term used in public health to explain that discrimination may affect health. It was first used by Arline T. Geronimus, Sc.D., a researcher at the University of Michigan who was doing research on fertility and pregnancy. 

Rivers’ story revolves around a woman who has recently had a miscarriage and is trying to keep herself collected around women who have checked in on her, including her mother and her sister. Some of the dialogue was informed by the experiences of a close friend of Rivers who had a stillbirth, and the experiences of actors who participated in the workshop. It also incorporates some of the data that Villarosa shared in her article.

As he developed it, Rivers said he was “thinking about my community in St. Paul. I was thinking about the community that Penumbra Theatre sits within. And I was thinking about middle-class Black women. I was thinking about college-educated Black women.”

But Rivers said he also wanted to reach people of other races and ethnicities because “we are in the same social class as you. We have the degrees that you have. We have the jobs that you have. And this is happening. And that is scary. It’s terrifying — and it’s wrong.”

Recalling Villarosa’s magazine article, Rivers said it stayed with him because the story “zoomed in on real people” and shed light on a widespread problem.

Vinecia Coleman

A playwright who lives in Minneapolis, Coleman said reading Villarosa’s article as she prepared for playing the lead character reminded her of feeling that “my voice a lot of times isn’t heard in the medical community, that I am not believed or ignored, or my pain isn’t taken seriously.” 

When novelists, playwrights and journalists write stories about the life experiences of Black people, Coleman suggested they should think about how they represent them in their work. Rivers gets it right in “Weathering,” she said because the characters are people who “happen to be Black.” 

“I think Black stories are universal because we are human,” Coleman said. “But we are not a monolith. We have different experiences and backgrounds — and we are Black, or we are people of color.”

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Margarita Martín-Hidalgo Birnbaum

Margarita Birnbaum is AHCJ’s health beat leader on health equity and an independent journalist who has covered health disparities. Fluent in English and Spanish, Birnbaum is also an interpreter and translator.