“Every baby is born into a story of how they got there,” Phoebe Potts says at the start of “Too Fat for China,” her one-woman “comic look at the agony of adoption.” The show debuts with a run at the Gloucester Stage Company on Nov. 23, 24 and 30 and Dec. 1.
“I’m going to tell you the terrible things I did for love,” she says.
In 70-minute performance, Potts tells the story of her adoption of her son Lemi, now 9 years old. There are lots of laughs and it ends with bubbly baby love. In between the performance gets seriouser and seriouser as Potts reckons with the sordid, racist, corrupt capitalist heart of the adoption industry.
“International adoption is not about finding families for babies who need them,” Potts says. “International adoption is for white people who can afford one.”
Last March, I bumped into Potts at a Purim party at Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester, where she is Director of Family Learning for their Sylvia Cohen Religious School. She mentioned that she was working on a sequel to her 2010 graphic novel “Good Eggs,” which Publishers Weekly called “a sprawling and lovable memoir about her and her husband’s attempts to become parents.” (Spoiler alert: They turned to adoption instead.) The sequel, she said, was going to be a live one-person show.
The Gloucester writer and artist had tried telling the adoption story as a graphic novel. “I drew it several times,” Potts tells me. “I did it in black and white. I did it in color. … I couldn’t make it work.”
In the meantime, Potts became a storyteller-in-residence for Fish Tales, the live true storytelling evenings at the Gloucester Stage Company. She would write her tales in advance and practice telling them. “When I got up to the mic, I felt prepared. It also felt like I was meant to be there,” Potts says. The woman who runs the series, Maureen Aylward, eventually asked her, “Why don’t you do a one-woman show of all your stories?”
Potts tells me, “I love to draw and I love to draw comics. I learned in the last few years after my Dad died that part of the reason I drew so much is to be obedient. It turns out I want to be a lot louder. I think I was told to draw, it kept me quiet. … But I want to be heard more.”
In “Too Fat for China,” Potts ponders why do we want to have babies? Why do we want to become parents? (“I don’t want to be a mother … but a father, that could be good,” Potts jokes in the show.) What are we chasing? Lust? Love? A cure for loneliness? Is it selfish? Giving? At what cost?
“Every adoption story begins traumatically,” Potts says in the show, “a mother cannot keep her baby.”
In “Too Fat for China,” Potts recounts dating Jeff, the man who would become her husband. She tells of getting fat. She considers her Jewishness. She describes their struggles to have a baby. “I could get pregnant, but I couldn’t stay pregnant,” she explains in the show. The couple pursued in vitro fertilization without success. “I have a body type that reads as if it’s given birth and breastfed two people with nothing to show for it.”
So the couple looked into adoption. But China wouldn’t allow adoptions to people on anti-depressants and above a certain body mass index, she says. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think the people who would call me fat would be the People’s Republic of China,” Potts jokes in the show. “Phoebe, you’re too fat to have a baby.” Did that hurt her feelings? “I think that China really sees me.”
“Are you open to race?” adoption agencies would ask. Potts notes the horrible American values embedded in the costs of adoption, starting at $40,000 for a White baby, then $28,000 for a Black girl, and $24,000 for a Black boy. When the couple ends up adopting a Black baby boy from abroad and bringing him to the United States, Potts worries that has she put his life in danger—from racist police, from a racist court system that disproportionately imprisons Black men.
The couple’s quest to adopt a baby takes them to Cincinnati and Ethiopia. They meet an adoption agent who encourages the birth mothers to hide the adoption by telling friends and family that the baby died. Things turn grim. “We don’t look like the happy couple on the adoption brochure any more,” her husband tells her. They change directions and, eventually, find a happy ending.
“The telling of it gave me some control of what happened,” Potts tells me after a dress rehearsal. She says that she realized after one adoption misadventure, “This is about race and I’ve been pretending it’s not. The problem of being white is I was surrounded by white people and none of us were looking at it like that.”
If this is the kind of coverage of arts, cultures and activisms you appreciate, please support Wonderland by contributing to Wonderland on Patreon. And sign up for our free, weekly newsletter so that you don’t miss any of our reporting.