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'Becoming Emily' focuses on the story behind a bombing, shedding light on abortion and violence

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 17, 2009 - When it comes to abortion some people write their members of Congress. Some people post long-winded blogs. Still others stand on sidewalks with angry signs. Joan Lipkin produces a show.

Lipkin, the producing artistic director ofThat Uppity Theatre Company, is staging "Becoming Emily" Thursday, Friday and Saturday at the Black Cat Theatre in Maplewood. It is based on the life story of Emily Lyons, a nurse at the New Woman All Women Healthcare Clinic in Birmingham, Ala., which provided abortion and gynecological services.

On January 29, 1998, terrorist Eric Rudolph bombed the clinic, killing the security guard Robert Sanderson and leaving Lyons with injuries that have left her disabled. After a manhunt that lasted several years, Rudolph pleaded guilty to the crime in 2005 and is serving four life sentences without the possibility of parole. With love and support from her husband, Jeff, Emily Lyons has returned to an active life and will be in St. Louis to see the production on Thursday.

"It just seemed that there was a really big story there," Lipkin said. "A story about a woman and the effect this had on her life, her relationship with her husband. How does she survive not just physically, but psychically, something of this proportion? What does it mean to a community to have something like this happen? And I thought, 'This is either a dance piece or it's an opera.'"

Lipkin used excerpts from Emily and Jeff Lyons' book "Life's Been a Blast" as part of the script, but she settled on dance as the best means to convey her message to an audience.

"There are things you can say with an eloquent use of the body that you can't necessarily say in words," Lipkin said.

Lipkin handpicked choreographers from the St. Louis area, calling upon the greatest strength of each one. The result is an eclectic collection of dance styles that captures a precise mood and message in each scene.

Eight choreographers have come together to create the dance routines. Lee Nolting, one of the choreographers, said, "It's not like somebody in charge; it's all of these creative voices working together, and that doesn't happen a lot. This mix is all about the message and the work."

The dancers range in age from 10 to 60. Voiceovers are used to guide the storyline, and three scenes use actors to address perspectives on abortion.

"I'm not very political, but when Joan approached me about doing this project, I did the research and I read Emily's story on her website, and I felt a need to be a part of it," said dancer Matt Borges.

Lipkin hopes the production will encourage deeper thought about abortion and the repercussions of violence.

"Our production of 'Becoming Emily' poses many questions," she wrote in a blog on the Vital Voice website: "Does any belief system justify violence at this level? What issues should be considered when it comes to having an abortion? Whose decision is it? How does someone psychically survive massive trauma and continue to live a meaningful life?"

The production comes just three weeks after the murder of Dr. George Tiller at a church in Kansas. The killing led to a national discussion about whether heated rhetoric can lead to violence against abortion providers.

"Becoming Emily" is passionate in its own way, but Lipkin says her production is more about hope than conflict.

"It's about somebody who perseveres, and perseverance in these challenging times in some ways is always uplifting," Lipkin said.

Alysha Love is a journalism student at the University of Missouri-Columbia.