Sagashus Levingston’s Book Comes
to the Stage
Actors Liz Stattelman (l-r), Yemi Harding, Keena Atkinson, Sagashus Levingston,
Tanisha Pyron, Toya Robinson and Director Marie Justice
“She saw that I was having a bad day,” Levingston recalled. “And she stood up behind me and said, ‘Somebody almost walked away with all of my stuff.’ What
happened to this quiet office mate? She said, ‘This is what feminism is about. It’s about reclaiming things that people have walked away with. And so trying to figure
out how those things were taken and how to get them back.’ Then she suggested a class with Susan Freedman at the UW. I took the class and fell in love with it. I
started studying feminism. I realized that as much as it gave me voice for so many things, it also eclipsed stories like a woman who was a single mom with six kids
and four different dads. I started studying Motherhood, a branch of feminism that focuses on motherhood. I fell in love with it and got a lot of stuff from it. But it still
didn’t represent me. I found a gap in the literature that I needed to explore in my research.”
What Levingston was finding were examples of feminism within a Euro-American framework. But she found nothing that spoke to her experience growing up on
Chicago’s south side. What does feminism mean for a single mom growing up in the projects? Is what she seeks as a feminist the same as what a middle-class Euro-
American feminist seeks?
Levingston couldn’t find any examples in the literature.
“I couldn’t find enough stories for my research,” Levingston said. “I only found them in science fiction. In science fiction, you have a teen mom who is breastfeeding
and saves the society. You have a mom who was brutally raped and her daughter who is born from that rape transforms the society. But in regular, everyday novels,
we weren’t getting those messages.”
What does one do when there is an absence of knowledge? A Ph.D. student creates her own. And so Levingston set about to collect the stories of African American
women who have not only overcome their circumstances in life, but also lead transformative lives in both small and big ways. And she turned the stories of these
women into the book Infamous Mothers.
“My work became about gathering 20 stories to fill in the gap of everyday women in present-day society who are transforming society, but also having these
backgrounds,” Levingston said. “The women in the book are pretty phenomenal. They are very candid and transparent, warm and giving. What I mean by that is just
not in terms of their personalities, but the way that they told their stories. They are very giving of their stories and they are also very raw in their delivery. You have
someone who is a recovering addict and someone who is a recovering sex worker. You have some who were never addicts or sex workers, but they are single
moms with different dads. Some of the women were married, but are signified because they have multiple children even though they are by the same man. Just by
virtue of being a Black woman with multiple children, they are signified. There is an array of women, but all of them are accomplished in their own right. In order to
qualify to be in this project, you have to have that challenge of being a single mom, a teen mom or whatever. But you have to contribute to society as a doctor,
business owner, and actor or in any way. The goal is to not challenge the narrative, but to extend and complicate the model.”
Levingston is trying to send the message that heroines in the African American community don’t have to just fit carefully and precisely constructed modes that often
times have to appeal to the larger Euro-American community, Levingston wants to expand upon the concept of heroine so that everyone has role models for which
they can strive and rise above their immediate circumstances.
“When you think about Black History Month and you think about the women chosen for Black History Month, you hear about Rosa Parks, Shirley Chisholm and Fannie
Lou Hamer,” Levingston said. “All of these women are wives, properly married with 1-2 children. You never get a representative during Black History Month of a
single mom who somehow fought for a certain piece of legislation to go through. You never get that in the narrative, so there is a one-dimensional representation of
women who make a difference. I wanted to complicate that. I wanted to capture the Claudette Coleman whom we ignore. Claudette Coleman refused to get off the bus
before Rosa Parks did. She was a teen mom and dark skin. And we understand during this time period why she wasn’t chosen to be the face of the movement. But
we aren’t in that time period anymore. We can acknowledge this youth because if we don’t acknowledge more of these feminists, you send the message that if you’ve
made these decisions, you can never make a difference in society and then you are creating another group of people who feel disempowered. My goal is to create a
model that quickens something in those folks who are on the sidelines saying, ‘No you don’t have to sit on the bench because you made these choices. You can
make a a difference too.’”
And Levingston is mindful that some of the heroes and heroines depicted in the mass media haven’t often lived stellar lives. In the era of social media, many icons
have taken a tumble.
“We found out that Heathcliff and Clair Huxtable couldn’t even be Heathcliff and Clair Huxtable,” Levingston said. “We found out that Martin Luther King Jr. had things
that he was struggling with. We found out that Malcom X had his journey. People are complex. And all people — black, white, green — are complex. When you
highlight one group of people’s challenges and elevate one group’s successes, that becomes reality for people. It becomes, ‘So to be a leader, you have to be
perfect.’ And that’s not true. To make a difference, you have to be perfect. And that’s not true. Or if you have made these mistakes, you can never rise above them.
And that’s not true.”
In essence what Levingston is saying is that there are some people who need realistic role models who also have an impact on society so that everyone can strive
for the next level in their lives.
“Here’s what I believe and here’s what we’re saying with the work,” Levingston said. “If I am a recovered addict, if I’m a recovered sex worker, if I’m a single mom,
I can reach another recovering addict or another sex worker or another teen mom in ways that someone who has never walked down that path can. Right now as it
stands, we have people in charge of non-profits or people in charge of whatever they are in charge of who are there to help these folks, but they don’t completely
understand their journey. While I am grateful and thankful for those people, I’ve noticed that when I go inside the YWCA or DAIS, my story awakens people in ways
that other people cannot. And I inspire people in ways that other people cannot because what they see in me is the possibility that they wouldn’t see in someone else.
They can’t dismiss me and say, ‘Well you don’t know my story’ because I usually have more kids than anyone else there, more daddy babies and more education. So
how do these two extremes exist in one person? And I tell them how. Never judge them. Never ask them. Never give them advice. I just go in and tell my story.”
The heroines don’t have to be Superwoman who saves the world. The heroine can be saving one child at a time.
“In the book, there is a woman named Jessica,” Levingston said. “She’s not a doctor. She’s not a lawyer. She’s not a teacher. Her story is about how she walks
through the neighborhood and she sees a little girl every day who is feeling bullied or who is struggling and doesn’t have a jump rope. She wants to learn how to
jump rope. Jessica goes out and buys the girl a jump rope and teaches here. It’s something as simple as that. It went from ‘But I was that little girl or I was someone
who felt like the outcast.’ A stranger she has never seen before just sees her on the way. It’s as simple as that. I want to highlight those every day heroes, the quiet
woman whom you see on the bus and know nothing about and seen in the paper. But that woman is doing something great, but she doesn’t have to announce it. She
is transforming the world one person at a time.”
A playwright by the name of Coleman edited Levingston’s book. And that spawned a wave of creativity.
“I gathered the stories,” Levingston said. “Coleman edited the stories. And while he was editing the stories, he asked that since he was a playwright, could he write
a play that was reminded of the Vagina Monologues. He saw that in these stories. And the original interviewer said that she saw the same thing. I heard it twice and
thought, ‘Let’s go with that.’ As soon as the book was written, he started on the play.”
In some ways, it was an unlikely alliance of creative talents.
“I’m entrusting a gay white man who is 70-years-old to put it on the stage,” Levingston said. “It wasn’t difficult because I know him and he is extraordinary. I stress
that to people because that collaboration, I think, is a model for what I wish more collaborations would look like between people who are extremely different. I didn’t
have the time to write a play. He had the time and he had the understanding on how plays work. But he didn’t have the experience or the understanding. So he used
the resources that he had to create a framework. I read it and I filled it in. He was a very sympathetic, empathetic and open listener. Because I had seen him be that
way while we were editing the book, I knew that he was the right person to write the play. We are co-playwrights. He wrote the play, but I consulted heavily because
originally, the way it sounded, it was very much told from his perspective, which was fine because you have to start somewhere. And then somehow, we created
something that very much so became a Black woman’s play. But it was his skill set as a playwright that set up the framework and infrastructure for us to be able to
tell our story. I am very proud of that collaboration.”
Next issue: Infamous Mothers – The Play
Part 1 of 2
By Jonathan Gramling
The beauty of theater — besides its inherent entertainment value — is to
allow communities and societies to engage in conversations or explore
topics that may be too hot to handle in real life. Dating at least back to
Sophocles’ ancient Greek drama Oedipus Rex that explored the impact
of patricide and incest, theater has allowed communities to explore
taboo subjects or to even adjust to changing trends. Infamous Mothers,
a play produced by Strollers Theater based on Sagashus Levingston’s
book by the same title just may continue that Greek thespian tradition.
In her book Infamous Mothers, Sagashus Levingston sought to expand
— and make more complex — the concept of heroine within the African
American community. Who is a heroine and why? Is it Claire Huxtable
from The Bill Cosby Show or is it the single mother of four who
overcomes the odds and becomes a doctor or a lawyer or even
neighborhood “social worker.”