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Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff in the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court case on abortion rights, died Feb. 18 at the age of 69. In 2016, Gaye LeBaron wrote this column recalling the time during the late 1980s and early 1990s when McCorvey lived in Sonoma County.

Local history has discernible boundaries, usually city limits or county lines. But not always. Bits and pieces of a hometown’s past can turn up in unexpected places.

I am just back from a customary summer week in Ashland, Oregon, immersed in the world of Shakespeare and the thought-provoking creativity of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “American Revolution,” a cycle of new plays based on “moments of change” in modern United States history.

Thus far, the triumph of the cycle has been Robert Schenkkan’s play about Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Act of the 1960s. “All the Way,” commissioned by OSF and Berkeley Rep, went, literally, all the way to Broadway and won the 2014 Tony for best play and another for the LBJ actor, Bryan Cranston. It has recently become an HBO film.

This year’s production promises to go as far. And it was where I stumbled upon a slice of Sonoma County’s modern history. The play is titled, simply, “Roe” as in Roe v. Wade, the historic Supreme Court case of 1973 that is the cornerstone of the pro-choice movement.

The ”heroines” of the play are Norma McCorvey, a Dallas lesbian bartender who, by happenstance, came to the attention of an ambitious young lawyer named Sarah Weddington, who was seeking a client for a test case on abortion rights.

McCorvey — pseudonym Jane Roe, a name chosen by Weddington in place of the customary “Jane Doe — wandered into the attorney’s sphere when she sought to arrange adoption for the child she wanted to abort but could not, according to Texas law.

If this sounds grim – well, it is, of course. But not always.

Through a series of flashbacks to the many conflicting phases of Jane Roe’s adventurous life, the audience is invited to be amazed, aghast, even amused; and to both laugh and cry as McCorvey’s improbable story unfolds.

In 1989-90 McCorvey lived in Forestville. Her Sonoma County sojourn was brief and, understandably, not part of playwright Lisa Loomer’s script, although it fits neatly into what Loomer might call McCorvey’s “Allred Period.”

It was after she had revealed that she was Roe and been recruited for a series of appearances for the pro-choice effort engineered by the high-profile Los Angeles attorney, Gloria Allred.

McCorvey’s revelation that she was Jane Roe had made her a target of anti-abortion activists in Dallas and sent her into hiding. It was Allred who coaxed her into the national spotlight.

You might say that Sonoma County served as a “proving ground.”

The file folder with McCorvey’s name on it in The Press Democrat’s archive tells us she arrived in Sonoma County with her partner in June of ’89. In late September, she surfaced publicly, speaking to 800 students at Sonoma State, urging them, according to Press Democrat reporter Bleys Rose’s account, to familiarize themselves with women’s issues.

Next, she sat down at Adel’s coffee shop in Santa Rosa for an interview with then-PD reporter and columnist, Susan Swartz.

From Swartz’s story we learned that she had “short, rust curls and a quick wit” and spoke with “a Texas drawl.”

“She orders her cheeseburger ‘burnt’ and her mineral water ‘neat” and flavors her speech with ‘hey, girl’ and ‘ yes, ma’am,’ ” Swartz wrote.

She had moved to the Russian River area, she told Swartz, to begin a national speaking career.

Swartz, who has since written two books on women’s issues and is writing a play herself, has seen “Roe” in Ashland. We talked about it last week. And about that long-ago interview, which she remembers well, particularly about the Dallas harassment and threats that came when Jane Roe’s true identity was revealed.

“She said people threw baby clothes on her lawn,” Swartz recalls. But it was the shotgun blasts through the front widow that sent her to go into hiding.

Swartz: “She was very open and pleasant, not sophisticated, but definitely not dumb. She seemed to enjoy talking about her experiences. She was saying all the right things.”

And she was becoming accustomed to the spotlight. The week after her interview, she spoke at a rally in Old Courthouse Square sponsored by a Sonoma County group called ROE, an acronym for Reproductive Options for Everyone.

The march and rally brought out an equal number of anti-abortion activists as well as a police presence to see that the debates stayed peaceful.

McCorvey also received a rousing ovation in San Francisco a week later at a march for abortion rights.

“I was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” McCorvey told the tens of thousands of women’s rights advocates crowding Market Street.

In January of ’90, she was a guest speaker at the annual meeting of the Sonoma County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and appeared at rallies in the Bay Area and the state capital.

Then she left Sonoma County for Los Angeles, but returned in May to be the commencement speaker at Empire School of Law.

The invitation extended by the graduates, caused a dust-up at the school when Dorothe Hutchinson, chairwoman of the board and former president of the college, objected and, initially forbid the talk, fearing — as she would explain later explain in rescinding her decision — that the politics of the abortion issue would detract from the importance of the ceremony.

Hutchinson’s objection set off a small storm in the college’s community. Dean Robert Leahy threatened to resign and the class, which had voted 11-1 in favor of inviting McCorvey, began to practice their newly minted lawyer arguments in earnest.

McCorvey did speak. And president Roy Hurd, who still holds that title at Empire College, remembers her speech well — if only for its brevity.

“It lasted no more than two minutes,” he said last week, “including a 30 second pregnant pause in the middle. It was a showcase for her bunch of platitudes and at the end of two minutes, she was done,” he said.

“The audience was shocked. Finally, someone started to clap.”

McCorvey never came back to Sonoma County. Or, if she did, it was with a much lower profile than she had assumed.

If you see the play — or read what has been written about her life since, you will learn that there are some odd twists and turns in the ensuing years.

Played in quick scenes, illustrating the shock and surprise of her supporters, she joins Operation Rescue’s attempt to save unborn children, is baptized as a born-again Christian in a backyard swimming pool and, in 1998, is baptized once more, in the Roman Catholic faith.

On the way, McCorvey wrote two books, played herself in a small-budget film, raised funds — some for her own use — and now, at 69, lives a kind of hand-to-mouth existence in Texas.

While Norma McCorvey’s place in the “new American Revolution” is that of a historic figure — some say comparable to Rosa Parks — Her place in Sonoma County history is fleeting, as if Parks had passed through on a bus.

In Loomer’s play she seems like a fictional character. But, in our post-play conversation, Swartz, who knows a great deal about the issues involved, pointed out that “You couldn’t create a fictional character like her. People would consider it ‘over the top.’ Nobody would believe it.”

Reviewers of “Roe” have been enthusiastic and quick to point out that the playwright has not taken sides. And audiences of all points of view have joined in the tears and laughter.

Playwright Loomer, in a piece written for the OSF magazine “Prologue” explained the comic element.

“I have found … that humor does open people up. People start laughing, and then they are more open to considering the more serious issues of the play. Laughter opens our minds and maybe even our hearts.”

If “Roe,” the play about where it all began, is as good as it looked in Oregon this summer, it may be the next of the aptly named ”American Revolution” canon to hit Broadway.

It will travel, with its original cast, to the two theaters that joined OSF in its commission — Arena Stage’s Mead Center in Washington, D.C., in January and Berkeley Repertory Theater in March.

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