Audience members entered a dimly lit space surrounded by the photographs and quotes of the women brought to life in “Infamous Mothers,” the new play based on the book of the same name by Sagashus T. Levingston.
The words, true stories of mothers, quite literally came off of the page throughout an two and a half hour long, intimate conversation about black womanhood and motherhood. Through Levingston’s interviews, a stage adaptation by Coleman and the direction of filmmaker Marie Justice, the cast brought the stories of the women’s stories bound between the pages to life in an authentic way.
“I was not at all ready for motherhood.”
“My story is still unfolding.”
“It’s a divine thing just to be you.”
“Your fate is tied to mines.”
Quotes like these filled the walls and floors of the theater space, reminding the audience that even though they have come to see a play, that these are real women, real stories. The words of the women surrounded the set of the living room belonging to a wiser mother figure, Idara portrayed by Toya Robinson. She is an “infamous mother.”
“We’ve taken that term and co opted it. We infamous. We bad,” Levingston said in the play, portraying herself.
Each and every woman has a story that makes them who they are. While their stories might not be perfect or respectable, it is theirs. “Infamous Mothers” captures exactly “how” the women depicted came to be.
“Mothers are the most incredible creatures on Earth,” Justice said during a post-performance talkback.
As Akeesha (Tanisha Pyron), Joretta (Keena Atkinson) and Max (Liz Stattelman-Scanlan) join Idara for readings of the women’s stories over cookies, we learn about life as both a black woman and a mother. “Infamous Mothers” explores themes like neglect, abuse, drug addiction, access to healthcare, prenatal care for black women, white privilege and disempowerment.
“It’s really difficult to have those tough conversations and then people are stuck with this is your opinion and this is mine,” Justice said in the talkback.
Justice and Levingston both said the play has a lot of triggers, however, the narrative is relatable for all women. While the issues addressed in the play might be universal to all women, Levingston said black women face specific challenges elaborated both through narrative and statistics in the play.
“Testimony is just as important as statistics because it’s within testimony statistics emerge,” she said.
Justice said she likes that statistics were included in the play because oftentimes black women must prove their struggles. She also said the play invites everyone to the conversation even if they do not share the experiences of black women.
“I know for white people, especially white men, they need to hear the numbers,” Levingston said.
The narrative also addresses white privilege and allyship. Max, the token white character, offends another character in the play. Justice and Levingston both said white audiences have an opportunity to learn from her character.
“We had Max in the play as a way of creating conversation between a black group of women and a white woman,” Levingston said.
“Infamous Mothers,” however, exists to reflect the narratives of black women so Strollers Theatre would like women who relate to the stories depicted to have the opportunity to go see it at the Bartell Theatre. Levingston also said the crew is committed to taking the production elsewhere as well as focusing on “Infamous Fathers” in 2019.
“For me, this was just the perfect experience. There was just so much love invested in it,” Justice said about working on the production.
People who see the play will learn to love and have compassion for women like Janet S., Sheila, Tanisha, Mistee, Jasmin, Idara, Joretta and Akeesha. Some will see themselves in those women and say “Hey, that’s me. That’s my story.”
“Infamous Mothers” is produced by Strollers Theatre at the Bartell in downtown Madison. It will have six more performances over the next two weekends, but the entire run is sold out. There is a waitlist for tickets.