By Hywania Thompson | Photographed by Kaia Calhoun
Marie Justice’s journey to becoming an entrepreneur, co-host of Discover Wisconsin, a filmmaker, actor and director wasn’t a typical one. Justice grew up in Joliet, Illinois, about 45 miles outside Chicago. She moved to Madison in 2004, where she and her husband, Johnny, started a family and began to forge their own path. “My husband and I are filmmakers. We didn’t go to film school, but we decided we were going to be photographers. We studied it, we figured it out, we started doing it,” says Justice.
The couple became involved in community issues and asked themselves how they could be a solution to the world’s problems. They decided to use their skills and passions to help others. Social justice threads are woven through each of their projects. In 2016, they produced “Walk a Mile in Their Shoes,” a documentary about five marginalized individuals from different walks of life, bravely telling their stories. Justice also starred in “Detroit 67,” a play about the 1967 Detroit riots.
Now, Justice will direct “Infamous Mothers,” a play based on the powerful book by Madison social entrepreneur and educator Sagashus Levingston. The book includes 20 stories—beautiful and raw—told by women who experienced hardships but didn’t let those moments define them. Now we get to see their stories acted out on the stage.
Justice and Levingston have been friends for years and Justice says she’s watched “Infamous Mothers” grow into an “amazing and phenomenal piece of work.” For Justice, directing the play is another opportunity to do what she loves and help others along the way. “I’m always looking for work that’s meaningful and this work is beyond meaningful. It has such a purpose and I love when art imitates real life and teaches you a lesson,” she says.
The idea for the play came from Levingston’s book editor Coleman, who wrote an adaptation for the stage. When Levingston read the script, she says she knew it was “one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.” Meanwhile, Justice’s “Detroit 67” director approached her about a play focused on single mothers. Justice didn’t know at the time that the play was based on her friend’s book. “I had no idea it was ‘Infamous Mothers.’ Sagashus did not contact me directly… they had worked with her and then they came to me separately. It was a cool moment,” Justice says.
The play features characters telling stories from the book through compelling monologues. They’re played by six female actors, all but one black and five from Madison. Levingston also will take the stage to tell her own powerful story. She says having her book come to life is humbling and necessary.
“It’s a different experience from the book. For those who have purchased the book, it not only performs the stories, but it engages the issues raised by those stories. And for those who have not read the book, for whatever reason, it offers an alternate form of engagement,” says Levingston. “This is going to be something beautiful and powerful, like the women themselves.”
Justice says the play gives a voice to people who feel voiceless. “It’s helping women who need to hear this, they need to see their stories reflected…and it’s enlightening other people that don’t realize we can easily dismiss people,” she says. “It’s easy to judge people and criticize them until you understand what they’ve been through.”
There’s nothing better than hearing strong women’s stories of perseverance and triumph, says Justice. “You’re going to cry, you’re going to laugh and you’re going to walk out of there feeling like you can make the world a better place.”
“Infamous Mothers” runs Nov. 8-24 at Bartell Theatre in Madison. bartelltheatre.org