When you think of someone who is infamous, what image comes to mind? Are they bad? Evil? How about disgraceful?
If the way we generally interpret the word has such negative connotations, what could it possibly mean to be an infamous mother?
What started as a dissertation for Sagashus Levingston, Ph.D. candidate in the department of English at the University of Wisconsin quickly turned into a social mission, generating a for-profit business and coffee-table book which has most recently been adapted into a play performed at The Bartell Theatre on the Evjue Stage this month.
“Infamous Mothers,” published in 2017, highlights the incredible, true stories of 20 women who “went through the belly of hell and brought something good back.” For Levingston — a proud, single mother of six — and so many others who experience Black motherhood, being infamous has actually allowed them to accomplish extraordinary things in return.
Written in collaboration with Coleman and directed by filmmaker Marie Justice, the play highlights six of these women’s stories which are represented by four diverse, dynamic women reading from a copy of the coffee-table book together. Also interconnected are Levingston’s real life and personal story which she narrates from what appears to be her writer’s desk at home.
Not only do these four women learn from the stories they hear between the pages of “Infamous Mothers,” but they also learn from each other and bring a certain energy and action to the stage that provides each story with an even deeper level of meaning and purpose.
Some of the recurring themes stressed during the play include outside perception of Black women and mothers which often lead to assumption or misunderstanding, and what it means to struggle as a person in the world we currently live in.
Emphasis on the disproportionate death rates Black women and their babies face during childbirth was another crucial point brought up. The performance I attended featured a talkback after the show with Levingston and Tamara Thompson-Moore, fellow infamous mother turned proactive lactation consultant and birth advocate.
The pair’s honest discussion provided audience members with further insight into many of the issues Black women, all women and all humans ought to understand.
“A heightened sense of awareness helps everyone make their decisions. So when people understand the whole dynamic and the whole picture, and they work without fear — that’s what brings the calm,” Thompson-Moore said.
When we focus on the “how” in addition to the “why” things appear the way they do, there are so many ways to rid our lives of fear and replace it with the truth. Fear, which tends to stem from a lack of understanding, is what often holds us back from progress.
Instead of remaining fearful and accepting authority as is, we must work together to make the best decisions for everyone.
“The process for me always began with understanding the truth. The truth is — and where the truth lies in the context of everything — that when you are going up against systems, you have to understand that the ways which you move through those systems has to be very intentional,” Thompson-Moore said.“And so upon first contact, you have to set the tone because there is always a dynamic of power in everything. The minute you allow yourself to be the receiver of knowledge, you’re not the giver of knowledge and you sacrifice your power. So when you walk into a space and someone takes an authoritative tone with you — you take it right back.”
Letter to the Editor: UW erases radical history of International Women’s DayMarch 8, International Women’s Day, is meant to celebrate the radical history of women fighting back under a brutal capitalist Read…
This dynamic of power in everything is worth repeating. We need to work together as allies in every sense of the words as opposed to fighting for power we can all have cohesively. Commonly quoted by the late Walter Payton, “we are stronger together than we are alone.”
Levingston and Thompson-Moore’s discussion was followed by a Q&A and when asked by an audience member what the future looks like, Thompson-Moore answered with a clear and concise, yet descriptive response.
“History tells us that whenever a small group of people gets really excited about something and they create a movement — the powers that be have a very unique way of coming in and crushing them,” Thompson-Moore said.“Until we can form enough unity to protect that and protect ourselves — safeguard our economy, our bodies, our education, sources of water, natural resources — we’re susceptible to create this sort of dynamic that repeats itself over and over. I want to be optimistic, but it’s so hard to be.”
Figuratively speaking, even the characters of “Infamous Mothers” took some time to get on the same page, so what can we all do as individuals to work towards unity as a whole?
One step should be learning from those we perceive as different than ourselves. Though “Infamous Mothers,” which ran from Nov. 7 to Nov. 24 sold out in its entirety, there are numerous ways to continue learning from the tales of such strong women.
The next time Sagashus Levingston Talks Back in Madison takes place Thursday, Dec. 6 at Table Wine at 6 p.m. She will be joined by Marie Justice and actress Tanisha L. Pyron who told Thompson-Moore’s story through the play version. The conversation will touch on the importance of pursuing intersectional feminism ranging from topics about women of color to white fragility.
For more information on the stories of Infamous Mothers, visit their website.