Bukanla chooses not to sing these tunes in key. These songs are delivered as half statements and sour melodies, as if she were singing in the shower or to the radio -- until belting out the closing number, "At the End of the Road," which leaves no doubt that the sister can sing. Choices like this keep her portrayal entrenched in reality. The emotion at the play's end is real and makes for a moving finale, but Moms was not a song-and-dance woman. She was a black woman who set out to entertain in a different way from her upbeat, grinning, shoulder-shimmying vaudeville counterparts. Her storytelling style delivers even poignant tales with a punch line. Referring to her forced marriage to an old man when she was only fourteen years old, she grouses, "His shadow weighed more than he did! The only thing an old man can do for me is bring me a message from a young one."
Thanks to Bukanla's wonderful portrayal and Jerry Maple, Jr.'s cohesive, lively direction, Jackie "Moms" Mabley, Live! is a funny and touching piece of stand-up comedy. But as a theatrical work, it's a bit disappointing. It feels like a missed opportunity: Here is a figure vital to today's popular and entertainment culture, and most people have little or no idea who she was. Based on the performance alone, we learn that she was hilarious and are able to locate her in time, but confining the performance to the stage at the Apollo precludes any discussion of Moms's offstage life. Without the show's program, one wouldn't be able to appreciate Moms's true stature as a political, historical, and social force.