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
“It wasn’t difficult because he came on as the editor of the book and I understood how he works,” Levingston said as she took a break from play rehearsals. “I
understood that he would respect everything that I said. He would push back with me if he didn’t agree with something. I understood that at the end of the day, he
was going to honor my vision and he did that with this play.”
In a way, Levingston is the co-playwright of the play. While Coleman has created the skeletal, technical structure for the play, Levingston has put the flesh and meat
on that structure bringing the women to life. And while the play is based on the book, it features a set of totally new characters.
“The belief is that the women in the play are representative of the women in the book,” Levingston said. “No! It’s a totally different set of characters, but they are
channeling the women from the book. I guess the best way to think about it is if you’ve seen Vagina Monologues or For Colored Girls, it’s very similar in terms of
length of monologue. I am actually seeing it come alive and it’s way more beautiful than I had imagined it when it was written.”
The design of the stage and the way the play unfolds allows for the audience to be totally focused on the discussions that the women are having. It’s like being able
to peek in on a private conversation.
“The play opens and the stage is split in half,” Levingston revealed. “It’s me kind of functioning as the narrator. And the women in the play are on the other side of the
stage in their own world. We do not interact. It’s lights on, lights off; lights on, lights off. And their piece is based on the work that I do in the city with these things that
we call salons. Influential women get together to have discussion around topics. These women are having a discussion. It’s a combination of the salons and the
work that I do with the YWCA and the domestic abuse shelter. There is a group of women having a conversation about the book and then they channel the book and
the women in the book. Each woman has a vignette and I am in the play playing me as the narrator. I’m the narrator, but I am also Sagashus. I talk about the process
of the book and then I tell a little bit of my own story. The actors take on different characters. They become different women in the book and they are very powerful. I
am very proud of this set of folks. And the women who are cast are perfect for the roles. And of course, I am perfect for my role.”
While theater is meant to entertain, it is also about mentioning the unmentionable in everyday society. Infamous Mothers will take people through a lot of changes.
“There are a lot of complex emotions in the play,” Levingston said. “There is anger. There is seriousness. There is laughter. There is discomfort. There are moments
of tenderness. It runs the gamut. I think who may struggle with this are the respectable Black people, the ones who may say, ‘Why is this play exploring things that
we worked so hard to overcome?’ And my response to that is, ‘Because by ignoring them, you are still ignoring a population of people with challenges that they are
going through.’ This play, in many ways, is a breadcrumbs play. It helps people say, ‘Here’s my story. Here are strategies for me to be able to address certain things.
Here’s a community that I can connect with.’ That is versus ‘these people are spokespeople and we are just left out in the cold.’ What this play challenges is the
ideas of stereotypes. The stereotype is definitely there, but then we add all of the layers of complexity of the person. My work is coming from something called hip-hop
feminism. Hip-hop feminism is a branch of feminism that respects traditional Black women, but also says that here are the ways that respectability is broken down.
Here are the ways that it hasn’t worked. Here are conversations that we’re going to have. We let the older regime do it that way. We’re going to try something new.
But we are still there respectful of your efforts, but let us do this new thing.”
While this play focuses on the lives of Black women, Levingston emphasized that it is a play that everyone will get something out of.
“I do want people to know that this play was very much so a response to a call that Madison has been making,” Levingston said. “How do Black and white people,
people of color and white people come together and have a conversation without requiring people of color to do all of the educating? This is a play where white
Part 2 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.
While Coleman — he goes by one name — was editing Sagashus
Levingston’s book Infamous Mothers, he got the urge to write a play
based on the book. Levingston had become familiar with Coleman’s
work as they worked side-by-side on her book and gave him
permission to write the theatrical version of Infamous Mothers.
people can be a fly on the wall and say, ‘These are the conversations that can
guide me through that’ and don’t place the burden on Black people. There are
talk backs after all of the plays. And finally, for Black women who show up and
Black men, it’s a play that Madison has been needing because we are in
spaces that feel so white that you feel your stories are not heard or told. I have
often almost broken down crying at some point just performing this. I can
imagine that this will tug on
the heartstrings of people because it is their story. And we think the
respectable Black woman needs to hear it because at the end of the day, our
stories are your
stories. If these women are talking about the trauma that happened to them, it’s
a trauma that has happened to you, but respectability won’t allow you to talk
about it. We become your voice as well. It may make you uncomfortable, but
we need to have the conversation.”
At the end of the day, the play is empowering.
“This isn’t The Color Purple where violence is constantly happening to a
character,” Levingston said. “Violence is happening to a character, but these
women are actually fighting back and they are overcoming and they are
contributing in ways that I think the literature hasn’t allowed them to do before.”
Before the men start feeling left out, Levingston is planning to write a book
next year called Infamous Fathers. And Levingston would consider doing
another play, this time called Infamous Fathers.
Buckle up your seat and be prepared to take a powerful ride through Sagashus
Levingston’s world as Infamous Mothers comes to the stage.
Infamous Mothers is a production of Strollers Theater and will be performed
Thursday through Sunday at the Bartell Theater, 113 E. Mifflin Street, from
November 8-24th. General admission is $20 with students and Stroller
member tickets at $15. Visit http://bartelltheatre.org/ for more information or to