Review: The Billboard, by Natalie Y. Moore

The Billboard
by Natalie Y. Moore
Haymarket Books

In this pivotal moment in the struggle for reproductive rights, Natalie Y. Moore’s The Billboard comes at a time when its message couldn’t be more relevant to the world today. Moore’s play, which was published in March and will soon premiere as a live show in collaboration with the 16th Street Theater next month, places the narrative on a fictitious reproductive health clinic where its staff is forced to contend with opposition and controversy that are anything but hypothetical.

The play puts the focus on the Black Women’s Health Initiative (BWHI), a medical and reproductive rights center operating in Englewood, Chicago. Operated by Tanya Gray, alongside the chair of the board of directors, Dawn Williamson, and her assistant, Kayla Brown, the clinic soon finds itself unwillingly placed in the center of the abortion debate spotlight. News begins to emerge that a billboard has been put up near the clinic, which partly reads “Abortion is genocide. The most dangerous place for a Black child is his mother’s womb.” Erected by staunch anti-abortionist and city council hopeful, Demetrius Drew, the billboard soon forces the staff of BWHI into a public battle that calls into question the clinic's ability to reach the community it serves and how it can continue operating in the neighborhood.

Not soon after the billboard comes up, the staff for BWHI choose to take their stand by making their own billboard, one which portrays a group of black women smiling and joining together in a toast alongside text which reads “Black women have the right to make decisions for their families and their bodies. Abortion is self-care. #TrustBlackWomen.” From there, the story proceeds to tackle the ongoing struggles, realities, and fears that those working in centers like BWHI must contend with every day. By grounding it in Englewood and highlighting the nuance and dimension of Chicago’s Black community and culture, the story manages to expand on the intersectional struggle of racial, reproductive, and wealth inequality that overlap. 

Inspired by a real billboard in Dallas, Texas, that incited similar controversy, it is to Moore’s credit that the characters and world she has created here feel as real and multi-layered as they do, despite the story's short length. The characters and ideas are portrayed with a richness of detail and supreme sensitivity. No sentence is wasted and every word spoken and action portrayed is serviceable to the story and the ideas it's presenting. The central conflict of the protagonist's struggles lay rooted in their determination to fight to uphold autonomy to their body and their choices despite the many roadblocks. Following this struggle to justify their right to choice and the rights of all people to access this kind of care affords further appreciation to the real people who fight these battles day after day. To accomplish this kind of empathy in such a short drama is impressive.

While anti-abortionists serve as the main point of opposition in the story,  Moore also highlights another danger in the form of strategic politicians who show indifference and a lack of insight into just how integral a role these clinics play in the communities they support. They do not, however, shy away from using the issues to draw lines and create political divides. On the flip side, some in power would prefer not to have any input at all so as not to alienate their public. While not shown as a physical danger, Moore carefully shows how the failure to act by those in leadership roles can be just as detrimental. Moore uses her characters to examine and represent the different viewpoints and arguments to reproductive rights, all of which are portrayed truthfully to the complex topic at hand.

The work that the staff at BWHI performs is shown as integral yet often scrutinized and at times outright dangerous given their controversial function. As the real world witnesses the potential overturning of Roe V. Wade (an ongoing story that makes the release of The Billboard especially relevant today), readers here are granted an authentic and important look into the harsh realities that come with operating clinics like the one in the story despite immense pushback from opponents of reproductive freedom and access to abortion. As access to abortion continues to be endangered, Tanya, Dawn, and Kayla’s fight for their and their clients' safety shines a light on the real dangers and sentiments being expressed.

While on the surface this is a story about one clinic's battle against opposition, Moore further layers her story to touch on other topics like the repercussions of political indifference, urban development, patriarchy, and society's inability to protect its most vulnerable individuals, specifically, in this case, Black women. The issues raised are all individually important and will hopefully inspire its readers to better understand and critically question the many institutions and norms our society has produced and upheld.

Outside of the main text, the book also features a foreword and afterword, as well as a Q&A with Toni Bond. Bond is actively involved in the reproductive justice movement in Chicago where she ran the Chicago Abortion Fund and is a leader in the Trust Black Women collective. These are all short yet insightful additions to the text.

As mentioned above, The Billboard is coming out next month with a stage adaptation by 16th Street Theater. The play is directed by TaRon Patton and will run June 23–July 17 at Northwestern University’s Wirtz Center. Tickets are available here. You can also purchase the book from Haymarket Books here. Should the play be like its written counterpart, audiences are sure to be treated to an engrossing story that resonates long after the curtain closes.

The Billboard is available in most bookstores and through the publisher's website.

Picture of the author
Adam Prestigiacomo