In partnership with Alamo City Studios, Theatre For Change, TLU’s Brown Cultural Enrichment Endowment, and the Department of Dramatic Media, the short film “Ruth” will have a one-night only preview on Friday, September 20, at TLU’s Studio Theatre in the Weston Center.
Set in the Depression-era South, “Ruth” is the true story of a pregnant, destitute mother of four forced to seek unregulated means to end a pregnancy so her family can survive.
The film’s title character, Ruth Delay, is the great-great grandmother of Dramatic Media Professor Shannon Ivey. As a filmmaker and storyteller, Ivey says the piece at its root is about people in really extreme situations and the horrible things many of them—especially women—are forced to do. While she always knew Ruth’s story was one of despair, Ivey never knew the truth behind what really happened.
“On her death certificate it says she died of kidney failure and that’s what my family had thought all these years,” Ivey said. “On her deathbed, my Grandmother Hazel [Ruth’s daughter] told my mother that Ruth died of an abortion.When I started reading some of her old letters, it became apparent that she had in fact taken turpentine to terminate her pregnancy because she simply could not afford to have a fifth child after her abusive, alcoholic husband left her. I then started thinking about how many women had kidney failure listed as a cause of death when it was actually an unsafe abortion. She died of sepsis in the womb, and it was a violent and unspoken cause of death for many women during the Depression. No one should have to die that way.”
Ivey said she began researching similar cases to see just how many women endured the same fate as Ruth. She discovered what she drank was actually something called Female Elixir, a common “medicine” many women drank. It was even sold at Woolworth’s.
“She was trying to put a band-aid on what was really happening,” Ivey said. “She had no idea she could die from drinking the elixir. In her letters, she mentions feeling sick but that it wasn’t anything she couldn’t deal with. It’s mortifying that she was trying to maintain the illusion that everything was ok.”
As stated in Leslie J. Reagan’s book, “When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States,” medical studies and sex surveys demonstrated that women of every social strata turned to abortion in greater numbers during the Depression. Reagan writes, “Generations of women persisted in controlling their reproduction through abortion and made abortion an issue for legal and medical authorities. Those women, their lives, and their perspectives are central in this book. Their demand for abortions, generally hidden from public view and rarely spoken of in public, transformed medical practice and law over the course of the twentieth century.”
Ivey says we should never be ashamed of our stories. She’s also very well aware of the extreme political and religious controversy surrounding the topic of access to medically safe abortions.
“People had to grow up without a mother or a grandmother, and generations of family members—like my own—were affected by that,” she said. “It also goes back to how these women were seen by others and even blamed for what kind of men they chose. I’m not ashamed of Ruth. I named my daughter after her. Coming from the perspective of a mother, I had to tell her story and it’s the story of so many women. I had to find the humans in these sound bites and that’s what we did. It’s so important as storytellers to forget about the anger and rhetoric from both sides. We’re all humans.”
Many Dramatic Media students also worked in every capacity of the film. Ivey says projects like this are exponentially narrowing the gap between academic learning and the skill sets students must have to be competitive in the entertainment industry.
For Associate Producer and TLU sophomore Nick Hernandez, “Ruth” was his first experience working on a film set that wasn't completely student produced. The Dramatic Media major was also director of the art department and said working alongside professional actors, crew members, and producers was an experience all in itself.
“The students brought an extra oomph to set that is really only seen only during tech week of live performances, and it was something to be seen,” he said. “In the quick three days of filming, there were tons of moving parts and everyone had a role to play in it.”
Hernandez says he also found a sense of purpose and drive while working on the film.
“Sometimes as artists, we get hungry; and I don’t mean the kind of hungry where you crave a Big Mac,” he said. “I mean the hunger for art and to create. At first, it came in little doses in my quest for props and period pieces, then in setup for takes, and then in one final swoop getting behind the camera and watching what we created. Being driven to create, collaborate, and appreciate was my favorite part of this project.”
Dramatic Media Department Chair Professor Dave Legore says “Ruth” is the fourth film to emerge from the department’s annual Moving Pictures Project initiative, which attempts to connect students with at least one external professional filmmaker in the process of producing a short film.
“In this case, Professor Ivey assembled a team of professionals to help produce the film,” Legore said. “During my time on set, the impact on our students was notable, as they worked alongside these trained experts. A combination of current students and recent alumni were visibly inspired by the project. Upon the completion of shooting, they have been vocal in expressing the transformative effect this experience has had on them and on their growth. Some have become so inspired that they are planning to shoot another short film. All in all, the Moving Pictures Project has become an important part of our program and continues to demonstrate a growing interest in film at TLU.”
Cast and crew pictured above.