For gay couples who desire to start a family and raise children, surrogacy might offer a seemingly simple solution: just hire a woman to be artificially inseminated and carry the baby to term.
“Compensation,” a world premiere play by Hannah Manikowski opening this weekend at Island City Stage, explores the more complicated ethical and emotional issues that surround what often begins as a straightforward business transaction.
The play, originally a one-act work penned for a Carnegie Mellon University student showcase, is “a dialogue about the complex systems that coerce women into outsourcing their bodies for income, the ethical implications of men purchasing access to those bodies, and the profound yearning for a family that drives these people to entangle themselves in these systems in the first place.”
Manikowski was just a sophomore theater major when she conceived the story of Tara, a young woman who drops out of college and becomes a surrogate for an older, established gay couple, Gabriel and Elliott.
“I had a lot of questions about the purchasing of access of women’s bodies … a conversation that is usually held around sex work, but there are other ways we commodify women’s bodies, and that lead to questions about surrogacy and particularly commercial surrogacy,” the now 24-year-old Georgia native recalled in a recent telephone interview.
She then adapted the work for her senior thesis project.
“Through the process, the question about purchasing women’s bodies remained, but I found even more fertile ground — pardon the pun — in the questions of what makes a family, how the concept of family has evolved and how deeply tied we all are to maintaining a sense of family, even in unconventional ways,” Manikowski explained. “I’m not just talking about Gabriel and Elliott, but Tara, as well. I saw myself from all of their perspectives because I am a woman who deals with my body being objectified, but I'm also a lesbian who would like to have a family of my own someday.”
She emphasized that her play never lambasts Gabriel and Elliott for wanting a child or seeking a surrogate.
“There is a part of me in all three [characters],” Manikowski said. “I don’t like issue plays. If you want to write a manifesto, you should write a manifesto. But if you want to write a play about those issues you’re still grappling about, it was important to represent the gay community.”
After graduating, Manikowski posted a synopsis of “Compensation” last year on New Play Exchange, an online theater forum, and Island City Stage Artistic Director Andy Rogow contacted her almost immediately inquiring about the rights to produce the world premiere.
“It’s both scary and exciting,” she said of handing her creation over to another director. “While I was a directing major, I discovered a more profound passion for writing for the stage … I think of my stage direction [in the play] as the conversation I have with the director in the room.”
Manikowski has since moved to Los Angeles to continue pursuing her craft and won’t be able to attend the world premiere in South Florida. She’s still managed to collaborate with Rogow via Zoom and looks forward to the video of the production that Island City is also producing and will stream online Feb. 19 – 28.
“To be 24 in the middle of a global pandemic and still get to experience the world premiere … I try not to get too caught up in the disappointment,” she concluded.
Island City Stage presents the world premiere of Hannah Manikowski’s “Compensation,” Feb. 5 – 14 at Wilton Theater Factory, 2304 N. Dixie Hwy. in Wilton Manors. CDC and county guidelines are in place for live performances and masks are required. The production will also be available for online viewing, Feb. 19 – 28. For tickets and more information, go to IslandCityStage.org.