Angela J. Latham

Momma is a non-fiction narrative based on the author’s experiences within and escape from a fundamentalist religious culture. It was first performed in association with Beast Women Productions of Chicago, Illinois. In this narrative, Latham explores themes of identity, family, and loss, as well as the role of narrative itself within these experiences. As she rhetorically disassembles her view of past and future, the conflicting accounts of lived, perceived, remembered, and anticipated events narratively replicate each other in a refracted story that is simultaneously contradictory and self-authenticating.


Momma (script)

(The speaker/author/performer is a middle-aged woman whose speaking style suggests a southern upbringing, with a dialect and vernacular that has mostly but not completely worn off. Her persona is poised, but without arrogance. She is audience-centered, but not to a degree that emphasizes the performative nature of her relationship to them.)

I’ve been having strange feelings lately about my momma. Maybe ‘cause her birthday was a little while ago, or maybe just because. My momma is a powerful woman, though not in the usual sense—job, money, education…. Her family hails from Kentucky, all eleven of the kids and Ma and Pa too. This means that Momma can make fried chicken and its derivative gravy better than any pretend colonel. It also means she unexpectedly blurts out phrases like “a new broom sweeps clean, but the old broom knows where the dirt is,” and other odd expressions that make people look at me funny when I use them myself.

When I say my momma’s powerful, probably the lead example of this is that she was largely responsible for my daddy’s conversion to fundamentalist Christianity and his subsequent “calling” to be a preacher. Daddy always said God called him to preach, but I happen to know it was my mother.

So lately I have been trying to figure out her exact influence on me. Truth is, I’m a momma too, so there’s a bit of insecurity behind the exploration. I worry that this power thing is something I may have inherited without realizing it, like a way of standing or a facial expression that reminds everyone I am my momma’s daughter, but of which I am completely unaware.

You might think my momma is influential because of some special powers of persuasion, but you would be wrong. Growing up, there were no big speeches like: “Here is the path you should take,” or “Always steer clear of X.” No, her influence was and is far more insidious than that. It is more a by-product of her very existence. Let’s see if I can explain.

My momma is one of those people who narrates her life. You know, you are sitting in the same room with her, reading, or watching tv, or whatever. She decides to go to the bathroom, or check on the roast. Benign tasks that need no pronouncements or explanations, and yet never does she leave a room without some declaration of where she is headed and why. This may seem a charming eccentricity, but it has the effect over time of creating an excruciatingly intimate sense of accountability. When you grow up with this, it becomes engrained in you that you too must narrate any and all activity for the benefit of others. To have any privacy or autonomy at all comes as a result of resisting an almost overwhelming urge to confess your every move and motive.

Meals are another example of how Momma in some ways rules the world. We were one of those families who actually did have dinner (supper) together every night. Frankly, I think this practice is over-rated. In any case, Momma reigned at mealtime. This was partly a result of her having created and choreographed the entire experience, and partly a result of her verbalizing instincts, previously noted. She served as a sort of tour-guide to every meal. “There’s cheese over here.” “Did you see the gravy?” “I made mashed potatoes.” “I got regular Ranch and Lite Ranch.” None of these were neutral comments of course. The implication was always that you should avail yourself of whatever was pointed out to you. To this day, I feel very self-conscious at every meal I eat with Momma. I try to do things to prevent her comments or questions—take a little of everything, acknowledge all the condiments, discuss the food with her in detail, you know.

For all my angst, I must admit that Momma mostly gave me a great childhood. And I am a strong woman because of her. Sure, there is some back-handedness to that compliment, but also some purity to it. She ran our family with a model of determination that I somehow latched onto and learned to apply to all kinds of situations. In fact she taught me mostly that being tenacious is the primary ingredient for just about any recipe (except for maybe all that salt she added to everything). Momma managed to raise a feminist right smack dab in the middle of a religion where women to this day vow obedience to their husbands at their weddings and consider their husband the god-ordained leader of the home. And although it would kill her to know this, it was Momma’s example of sticking to her guns that later helped me walk right out the door of the prison that was my religious upbringing.

But when I look at the other side of this coin, I have to wonder what kind of commentary my son might produce someday that implicates me. What will he ultimately say about a momma whose decision to leave the fold, to lose her religion, necessarily meant leaving him behind? Just so you know, conservative religious groups are not inclined to be gracious to women who decide they can’t continue to be their particular brand of good girl. And bad girls get punished. Swift, sharp, and where it hurts the most—in my case, by taking my boy away.

You would be surprised how, in some courtrooms a ways south of here, having a career, a little bit of education, makes you seem well, unmotherly. And just try entering a courthouse that represents your one chance at child custody only to find people you used to sit next to in church all circled up in the rotunda, holding hands and praying to God and probably the judge to, in case he’s listening, that God will not grant custody to the wanton woman who happens to be the mother of your precious son. Does something to you, that.

But back to the tough question: How will my son one day describe his life with me? The power of his own mother? Perhaps he will describe it in no more flattering terms than I have to describe my life with my momma. I can only guess. Maybe something like this….

(She shifts and subtly assumes the persona of a thoughtful and somewhat sad young man.)

My mom is a powerful woman. Not in the usual sense—fame, wealth, whatever. My mom was a preacher’s daughter. Her father worked for a tiny and very conservative religious sect—she likes to call it a cult. This means that she can quote more Bible verses than anyone I know. Her religion had lots and lots of rules, especially about how women should behave. She behaved well—according to them—for about thirty years, then the clash between her old religion and her new one, education, became so unbearable that she basically had to choose between the two. Advanced learning and fundamentalist beliefs are, according to her, mutually exclusive. When people ask me about my family background, I tell them my grandpa was a fundamentalist preacher and my mom is a fundamentalist teacher. Take everything Mom says about her own upbringing, substitute the word education for the word religion, and you pretty much know how I was raised.

When I say my mom is powerful, perhaps the best example I can think of is that she was largely responsible for my dad’s greatest joy and greatest grief in life. He couldn’t have been more thrilled when it seemed that god’s will for his life was to marry my mother and she actually agreed to it. Likewise, he couldn’t have been more broken than when she finally determined that she had mistaken god’s leading in marrying him for a lot of religious mumbo-jumbo. Too bad she couldn’t have figured that out a little sooner.

My mom’s influence on me is quite profound. Maybe that goes without saying, but you need to understand…. My mom narrates her life. Not so much the little stuff—where she’s going and why, like my grandma does (drives me nuts), but more the big events. She is forever trying to make meaning out of things. Processing experience is second nature to her. She isn’t religious, but she is theatrical. I don’t think there’s any difference. When she wants to say something, or understand something, or get something off her chest, she does so best in front of a crowd.

My mom uses this crazy expression. I don’t know where she got it: “A new broom sweeps clean, but the old broom knows where the dirt is.” It took me awhile, but I finally figured out what it means, at least in her case. Education, her new broom, clears away the dirt she hates, but religion, her old broom, knows just where the dirt is hiding.

When it comes right down to it, I think the main difference between my mom and my grandma is the kind of church they go to. Grandma goes where people sit in rows and listen to a preacher rant. Mom goes to a classroom, her very own theatre, where people sit in rows and listen to her rant.

(Woman exits.)

Angela J . Latham is Professor of Theatre and Performance Studies at Governors State University in the south suburbs of Chicago. She is the author of Posing a Threat: Flappers, Chorus Girls, and Other Brazen Performers of the American 1920s as well as several other essays and performance texts that have appeared in Theatre Journal, Text and Performance Quarterly, Performance Matters, and others.

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