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‘Infamous Mothers’ becomes a stage play

November 19, 2018

In the first few minutes of the new play “Infamous Mothers,” a character describes how she rose above the many challenges that life put before her: poverty, abuse, unexpected pregnancy, self-doubt.

Now, states the character (as she’s completing a master’s degree in social work), “I am a professional that helps people find the light in their lives.”

If the title of this sold-out original play, produced by Strollers Theatre and running at the Bartell Theatre through Nov. 24, sounds familiar, it’s because “Infamous Mothers” is also the name of a book by Madison’s Sagashus T. Levingston that was published last year.

The nonfiction book was designed to shine the light that so many women — like the character on stage — have discovered within themselves. Levingston interviewed and shared the first-person stories of people she dubbed “infamous mothers” — women who had gone through a lot in their lives (“the belly of hell,” in her words) — and had emerged from the experience stronger and self-knowing.

In the play, Levingston herself actually appears on stage, playing herself while seated at a writing desk, surrounded by a clutter of children’s toys and a basket of laundry that needs to be folded.

The rest of the stage is designed as the living room of a fashionable home, where four female friends — played by Toya Robinson, Keena Atkinson, Liz Stattelman and Tanisha Pyron — gather regularly to hang out, cook together, or in this case, discuss the coffee table book “Infamous Mothers.”

One by one, the four fictional women pick out an “infamous mother” story to read from the book. In the process, they transform into the women in the narrative, embodying the first-person tale.

The script was written by Coleman, an area writer and actor who was also the editor of Levingston’s book. Coleman (who uses only one name) helped turn the transcripts of lengthy, in-depth interviews Levingston had done with her subjects into a readable, 144-page coffee table book.

Turning the book’s individual stories into monologues for the stage would have been “the easy thing to do,” Coleman said.

“But I (thought) there’s more here that we could do” by framing the stories with the fictional characters.

“These fictional women are fictional ‘infamous mothers’ themselves, from one who has been very successful and is now retired – this is her home – to two who are on their journey of moving from shadowed pasts to a more hopeful future, and another young woman who was recently homeless and is currently living at the Y,” he said.

“By bringing in these four fictional characters, we have an opportunity to not just present the sequence of the stories of the women, but to converse about them and to explore the issues in a dramatic fashion.

“One of the four women is white, also, which gives us the opportunity to explore issues of race in ways that we couldn’t if we just presented the stories in sequence.”

The play’s director, Marie Justice, noted that “It was important to have the voices of the women in the book – their untouched words.”

“I think when we talk about marginalized persons, a lot of times we’re talking about giving people a voice. They have a voice – they just need us to pass the mic,” she said.

“So what I love about this is its straightforwardness. It was important in the way the play’s been pieced together.”

“Having Sagashus as a part of this play, I think, is pivotal and it’s important, because she’s telling some incredible stories of her own.”

After taking a pause in her doctoral studies at UW-Madison last year to complete and promote her book, Levingston just completed writing her dissertation — at the same time this play was in rehearsal, Justice said.

The mother of six, Levingston also wrote a teaching curriculum around “Infamous Mothers.” Her 16-year-old daughter Yemi Harding, a singer and junior at West High School, will perform a song in the play that Coleman describes as “a celebratory feminist anthem.”

Justice opened auditions for the play to the community, stating that no previous theater experience was necessary. People came from as far away as Milwaukee to audition, she said.

“Notoriously, the theater community here in Madison is not very diverse,” Justice said.

“The audience isn’t very diverse, the casts are not very diverse, and the plays that we choose are not very diverse. We’re not hearing a lot of stories from minority groups.

“That was the thinking behind it,” she said. “We wanted to not just say, ‘Hey, come out and see this play.’ We wanted to open it up to people who typically would not audition – especially because the material we’re working has such an authenticity to it that it would be an easy way to enter the theater community. It’s something you can relate to as a human being, and then as an actor.”

“Infamous Mothers” opened with a preview performance Nov. 7 for an invited audience, mostly women who might otherwise not have the means to buy a ticket to the show. Cast members were given tickets to hand out at the YWCA and other organizations.

Each performance features a talkback after the show with Levingston and sometimes an additional guest.

“Sagashus has taken something really hard, and made something beautiful,” Justice said. But “It’s a play that’s going to ask a lot of questions, and drum up a lot of questions.

“At the end you’re going to be sitting with a lot of heavy material to talk through. There’s a lot of intense moments in the play, and experiences that are shared.”

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