‘Infamous Mothers’ goes from dissertation to book and now stage play

The play will premiere Oct. 26
‘Infamous Mothers’ goes from dissertation to book and now stage play

Sagashus Levingston titled her Ph.D. dissertation “Infamous Mothers: Bad Moms Doing Extraordinary Things.” She is now the author of a book and the founder of a for-profit startup – both of which share the name “Infamous Mothers” and give a voice and support to African-American women trying to overcome difficult circumstances.

Levingston’s own story of transcendence – growing up poor, black and female on the south side of Chicago to becoming a Ph.D. candidate and an in-demand public speaker – is one of 20 women’s stories told in the book. She is homeschooling her six children while pursuing an advanced degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And now she’s about to be depicted in a play – premiering at the Bartell Theatre, Oct. 26 to Nov. 10 – also bearing the “Infamous Mothers” name.

Entrusted with this material — paring down the women’s stories for the book and adapting them for the stage — is Coleman, the one-name-only Madison playwright who, incidentally, cannot be mistaken for an African-American woman.

“Why would she want a 70-year-old white gay man to work with her on this project?” he posits, anticipating the question about his partnership with Levingston. Coleman says he grew up in poverty in Oklahoma with two brothers, an abusive father and a civil rights activist mother who was prosecuted and committed to a state mental hospital. Coleman himself spent two years in prison for refusing to fight in Vietnam.

Levingston recognized in Coleman a fellow outsider, he says. “I’m not black, I’m not a woman, but I have some visceral experiences that allow me to relate to their stories,” Coleman says.
The play will revolve around four women – infamous mother-characters invented by Coleman — who, through reading the book out loud, came to embody a few of the real women depicted in it. Levingston, played by an actor, will serve as a core character.

“I trust both Coleman and Sagashus in their collaboration of the final stage adaptation,” says Madison actor and filmmaker Marie Justice, who will direct the play, her first.

“As the work unfolds, I think it can be a great example of what non-minority allies partnering with mothers of color and marginalized groups can accomplish,” says Tanisha Pyron, who is profiled in the book and took photographs of some of the other women featured in it.

A single mother living in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Pyron is a classically trained actress a semester away from earning her MFA from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “She’s young, dynamic and has a hell of a story in the book. I hope she can find a way to be in the play, because she’s so good,” Coleman says prior to the casting of actors.

Justice says her partner, Johnny Justice, will serve as assistant director. Tosumba Welch – an actor and Levingston’s significant other – is serving as co-producer with Matthew Korda.

Welch doesn’t have experience as a producer, Korda says, “but he has this energy that just blew me away the first time I sat down with him. I knew he was producer material right from the start.”

Korda adds, “It’s a dream team as far as I’m concerned.”

Joel Patenaude is associate editor of Madison Magazine.