In Mariah MacCarthys World, Weirdos Take the Lead
Award-winning playwright Mariah MacCarthy has an uncanny way of writing about “odd” sexual antics as if they were the most normal thing in the world. The intimacy of her plays sends them teetering into the delightfully voyeuristic. Brutal as she is compassionate, MacCarthy’s feminist, often funny and self-critical body of work simultaneously dissects and humanizes taboo sexuality—like, say, pursuing a pansexual orgy, navigating the boundaries of a risky domination fetish, or that one time MacCarthy herself got pregnant from a one-night stand. She speaks to the Rail about her deeply personal, heartbreaking yet hopeful solo show Baby Mama: One Woman's Quest to Give Her Child to Gay People, now playing at the IRT Theater.
Leah Nanako Winkler (Rail): From a viral video on Upworthy to a feature on Bustle, there’s been so much that has been said about Baby Mama. Can you tell me about the show in your own words?
Mariah MacCarthy: Baby Mama is my solo show about my experience of becoming a birth mother: of getting pregnant and deciding that I wanted to place the child for adoption with a gay couple—and everything I was doing while I was pregnant. So there’s stuff about my job, my friends, and just the whole experience of seeing a social worker and choosing a family and giving birth and what that whole year was like for me.
Rail: Your work is often described as incredibly edgy, and I read an article recently where it was referred to as “feminist experimental naturalism with dance breaks.” Does this style also ring true for Baby Mama?
MacCarthy: I think of Baby Mama as straight-up storytelling. It’s a very traditional show—but because I’m open about my sexuality and I do a burlesque number it can be perceived as this risky, incredibly edgy “oh my god” kind of show. You don’t have to actually do much to be considered “edgy.”
Rail: Well, I do think a lot of your work normalizes this perceived “edgy” behavior by talking about it like it’s not a big deal. I love that line where you say “Yeah I went to a sex party,” extremely casually, like it’s the most common thing ever. And I think that for people who do live in that world, this casualness is powerful, because you kind of make the so-called weirdos the leads and the default.
MacCarthy: Making the weirdos the lead is so exactly what I try to do in my writing. I want to normalize stuff that’s sort of on the fringes. Baby Mama fits into this category, because being a birth mother is a really unusual experience. I didn’t have anyone around that I could be like, “Oh so, I know that you’ve been through this! What do you do about xyz?” So, I wanted people to know that this is an option. I also think it’s important to make this experience visible. To make people realize that when you think about adoption, think of this. When you think of women being pregnant when they didn’t plan to be and can’t afford to be, think of this. To make us no longer invisible.
Rail: Have you had any other birth mothers contact you because of the show?
MacCarthy: It’s interesting because the Upworthy clip prompted some backlash…and it was from other birth mothers.
MacCarthy: On the first day I was going to perform the show ever, at Dixon Place, I found this birth mother blog sharing my clips and blasting me for being what they perceived as being blasé about my experience and trying to make adoption cool or something. These were women who weren’t close to my age, and I think they didn’t have a choice in the matter. And my adoption was very much a choice. They were really angry with me that I was presenting my experience with a sense of humor. Even though it’s very, very clear in the clips that I was devastated by it.
Rail: Yeah! And humor is a coping mechanism!
MacCarthy: I think they were just upset that I had chosen adoption. They were kind of like: “If you had the option to raise your child then you should do that.”
Rail: That’s surprising to me that you got backlash from women. I was imagining weird trolly guys in the hollers or something.
MacCarthy: Yeah. I was really afraid it was going to ruin my performance. But I took a long walk, and I took a deep breath, and realized they’re in so much pain. They didn’t get a choice in this like I did. They’ve been carrying this with them and I’m a convenient scapegoat for their pain. It’s not really about me. It’s about them. Or maybe I bug them because I’m unapologetic about it?
Rail: Well, people don’t like unapologetic women. Even some women don’t like unapologetic women.
MacCarthy: Sometimes most of all.
Rail: So, I’ve seen your show before the election, and I’m excited to see it after the election. How has the current political climate changed the feeling behind the show?
MacCarthy: Things are about to get a lot worse for pregnant women, whether they're planning to raise the child or not, and I think they’re about to get a lot worse for gay families. I talk a few times in the piece about how lucky I am and was at the time – because my friends are so supportive, and I had fucking health insurance and on top of that my adoption agency agreed to reimburse my doctor’s bills, and I found this family I’m in love with who wants as open of an adoption as I do. And not every birth mother is as lucky as I am. I am unusual. But I think that, in a way, showing how good it can be for women and for this queer family is about to become a much more feminist and political act. I think that this should be the standard. We should be supported. We should have these resources. We should have a choice. We should be able to make a family however we want to. I think it should be this good for all women, no matter what their situation, no matter their decision. I think that’s about to mean a lot more.
Rail: I love how candid you are about issues surrounding the female body. One of my favorite parts in the show is when you talk about how you thought you were less fertile after your period. Is that the line?
MacCarthy: The exact line is: “I apparently had no idea how a woman’s menstrual cycle works, because I thought the week after your period was the safest time for unprotected sex.”
Rail: I remember hearing that and relating, because I thought that too! Something that surprised me about the show—because I think a lot of solo shows can be self-righteous—is that you admit so many flaws about yourself. It’s powerful, but it must be very challenging.
MacCarthy: It is. The most terrifying part for me is admitting that I defaulted on my student loans. I’m getting up in front of you and admitting that I’m bad with money. But issues surrounding money are a very important part of the story.
Rail: Definitely. You convey wanting to give your son, Leo, a better life than you’re able to provide financially. I view that as a very powerful choice but also a very sad one. I felt your pain in those moments, because as artists we give so much to our art without realizing the sacrifices sometimes.
MacCarthy: I had to come around and tell myself: You made this choice for a reason. You have this voice. You have this specific way of reaching the weirdos—of making the weirdos feel less alone. You made this choice because you believe in your own voice, and you want to honor that rather than buckling down and focusing solely on making money, which is something that I’ve observed in people who are about to have a kid or just had a kid. And, I get it, because you want to give your kid the best life that you can. But I also felt like the thing that made me feel the most alive and purposeful, and making the most out of my own voice and talents and background and heart, were these things that kind of were mutually exclusive with being a really broke single mom.
Rail: In this play, we hear your story about choosing Leo’s family—in a room filled with your chosen family, which is the theater community. What does family mean to you?
MacCarthy: One of my favorite things about the show is getting to tell everyone about how amazing the people around me were. How amazing my social worker and my nurse were. And my friends. And the village it took to place this child. And I don’t think that I received this amazing gift of this supportive village just because I’m awesome; I think I was incredibly fortunate. I could have been an awesome person in a not-so-awesome situation, surrounded by people who were not going to be supportive or just without access to these resources and that support. And every time I do this show I get really emotional and grateful for these people who said yes to going to doctors appointments, hospitals, and adoption agencies with me. Who said, “I’ll buy you a cab home from the hospital,” “I’ll bring you food.” My nurse stayed two hours past the end of her shift to meet my son. It’s a really wonderful thing to have been blessed with a platform for giving back to that community and not taking them for granted, and for celebrating those people and thanking them. And an amazing thing about Leo’s family now is that some of them are the chosen family of the family I chose for him! He has these two amazing godmothers who I have gotten to know and come to adore, and I have been to lots of parties and events where I meet the other people in Leo’s daddies’ lives. And seeing that there are so many people who love this kid and care about his well-being makes me feel really grateful for this decision.