Humor, family drama, and politics combine through the pen of  playwright Jessica Dickey.

Jessica Dickey

Jessica Dickey’s acting and writing resumes are equally impressive. Since 2017, her plays have been produced at Steppenwolf in Chicago and Rattlestick Playwrights Theater in New York City, she had a multi-episode arc on Homeland, and appeared in a play by MacArthur Fellow Samuel D. Hunter at Playwrights Horizons. I first encountered the multi-hyphenate at a dinner party in Brooklyn, where, even over the social chatter, it was immediately apparent that I was meeting someone with a mammoth brain. Dickey’s intelligence is clearly reflected in her work, which manages to be both ethereal and earnest, lyrical and concise—much like the playwright herself.

Her work explores a wide range of topics, from the modern horror of school shootings, to the origins of the pap smear and reproductive rights. A native of Waynesboro, Penn., Dickey (commonly referred to as Jessie by her friends), is a playwright who balances having something big to say with the desire to have fun saying it.

“I don’t necessarily write from a political impulse. I often write from a broken heart and the political aspects naturally emerge,” Dickey said. “[The Nickel Mines] school shooting was one of the first moments in my life when something permanently broke inside… When the world taught me how dark and terrible events could be.”

Dickey said that she felt as if “a little corner of my soul withered and never recovered.” That feeling of despair informed the writing of The Amish Project and Dickey’s other work.

“Looking back over the course of my work, I can see I’ve always been using my writing to wrestle with what it means to live a good, worthy life—what tenants I can hold on to. What sacrifices are worth it. What legacy means to me,” she said. 

Writers are often bombarded with thoughts about what makes a good story, and are often weighed down by ideas that can’t or won’t move from the cliff of the mind to the shore of the page.

What’s striking about Dickey’s process and writing is the way she can turn an idea or concept into an honest, simple truth.

She pursues topics in a funny, and often heart wrenching way, catching the audience off guard by unlocking something that might only be unknown because it doesn’t have words yet. In Charles Ives Take Me Home, a play about a turbulent father-daughter relationship, Dickey offers a unique expression of what it feels like to lose a parent via a fictionalized version of Charles Ives.

“You know… When you lose your father the trees lean down… You look around, and see that the trees are leaning down like they’re sighing, or giving up or listening and at first it feels like sympathy, like the trees understand. But then it starts to feel like… Something else. Something more sinister,” says Ives, appearing as a sort of mirage.

Her writing has an effortlessness to it, but make no mistake, Dickey’s success is due to her rigorous work ethic as well as her wild talent. She refers to the unknown frequently, as if she’s chasing an answer as a researcher rather than putting words on a page. Her latest play, Nan and the Lower Body, follows her grandmother’s (Nan Day) work as a cytologist alongside the doctor who would revolutionize women’s health by inventing the pap smear. The Lower Body was written for the Sloane Foundation and Manhattan Theatre Club, and reflects timely conversations about women’s reproductive health.

With new, increasingly restrictive anti-abortion legislation being passed in Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi, Utah, and Arkansas, women’s health organizations such as Planned Parenthood (which offer cancer screenings, STD tests, and pregnancy related services among others) are under attack. Texas’ state legislature passed a sneaky bill prohibiting the transfer of money to an abortion provider (like Planned Parenthood), which could potentially prevent women from accessing non-abortion services such as pap smears. For this reason, Nan and the Lower Body is particularly resonant without banging the audience/reader over the head with the issue at hand. In fact, it’s the humor with which her characters handle the subject matter that makes it most relevant. In the opening scenes of the play, Dr. Pap stands before the audience and speaks about the female body:

“The female sex is not exactly prized in the medical sciences, are they? Shame on us. Ah, which reminds me–yes, let’s just get this out of the way: Vagina. Vagina. Vagina vagina vaginal fluid. Vagina.”

Later in the play, at a dinner party, Nan Day gives her own speech about the lower body: 

“And then there’s the fact that this whole thing—the whole lower body— is a mystery. Like those pictures of the gas clouds or constellations where stars are born. Imagine if you had one of those inside you! You’re just as shocked as everyone else! But you’re still just—you.”

In his line, Dr. Pap acknowledges the squeamishness around the female body that can often lead to ignorance and sometimes more tragically, death. Nan then acknowledges what is special and what is terrifying about being a woman. The resounding message in both moments is that “the female body is nothing to be feared.

Nan and the Lower Body puts these two pioneers together (Nan and Dr. Papanicolaou). It highlights the pap smear, which has saved hundreds of thousands of lives, as well as the man who invented it, and how all of this might have impacted a woman who was herself losing the use of her lower body. It’s also about what is hidden, and how what is hidden eventually demands to be seen.”

That isn’t to say that the play is all message, Nan and the Lower Body feels personal. It’s a play about loving one’s work, about marriage, a play about compromise, a play about what can and can’t be said, about what should be said. It’s an intimate play that slips in information about women’s bodies and the history behind the treatment of women’s bodies. 

“Certainly Nan and the Lower Body comes at a moment when women’s health is in grave danger all around the world, and most appallingly our own country. That women’s reproductive health is still a negotiable item at the political table is ludicrous and the stuff of dystopian fictional work. But here we are,” Dickey said. “It takes so little to ensure women’s health, and it is so obvious why it is imperative. Dr. Pap would be so dismayed to see that so little progress has been mad since he championed this cause so long ago.”

The Amish Project poster

While Dickey’s work gives every character a fair shake, it is undeniably female. Nan and the Lower Body may begin with a male doctor talking about women’s bodies, but it ends with an intimate scene between two women. The play is still in the works, so I won’t spoil it for anyone, but there’s a gorgeous twist of surprise at the end.Dickey’s grandmother suffered from multiple sclerosis, which is hinted at in the play with a kind of slow dread— just enough to set off alarm. One leg stops working, it passes; random pain passes. There’s a feeling that Nan is outrunning something sinister permeates throughout the work.

“My maternal grandmother lived with my family for 19 years until her death. Due to multiple sclerosis, she was in a wheelchair. I resemble her: strawberry hair and cheeks, a crooked front tooth. She lived in the bedroom off of our kitchen, which mean that everything downstairs smelled of powder and urine, a combination I came to associate with decay,” Dickey said. “I knew Nan was going to die, so I kept a distance, sometimes tip-toeing so I she wouldn’t hear me. We ate at the same table every night but I failed to really know her. But ultimately, Nan and the Lower Body is for my grandmother. It’s my way of saying I’m sorry—to reach back in time, as only art can, to finally, to truly meet the woman whom I resemble, and to whom I aspire.”

Something that has always struck me about Dickey’s work is the ever-widening range of topics and mediums she works in. Now, Dickey is working on at least three plays: a play about Katherine Hepburn as a child, a play about senior citizens and their sex lives called The Door, and a play she’s just finished up in NYC called The Convent. She also has a few television projects in development, because like many New York playwrights, she’s making the jump into TV and film.

With a body of work that has always straddled the line between personal and political, relevance and humor, Dickey is poised to jump into this new medium and share her brand of personal and artistic activism with a wider audience. 

Charlotte Miller is a Los Angeles-based playwright/screenwriter. She spent 15 years in New York working in downtown theater. Selected credits include Thieves (Rattlestick Playwrights Theater), Raising Jo (Theater Row), Worst Year Ever (NYC Fringe Fest), Ugly Little Sister (NYU Clifford Odets Commission), among others. She has been nominated for the Playwrights of New York Fellowship, The Peoples Light New Play Initiative, The Doric Wilson Independent Playwright Award, and has been a finalist for Juilliard, the Women’s Project, Seven Devils, and Ojai. Her pilot, Reservoir, is currently a semi-finalist for the Sundance Episodic Lab.