By Ciara LaVelle
By Jose D. Duran
By Kat Bein
By Juan Barquin
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A pioneer in social satire, she was known for her ribald humor and outrageous commentary, which cut across racial, class, and gender lines. She performed on the chitlin circuit, a mostly Southern string of small black nightclubs, alongside Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and Aretha Franklin, among others, and strongly influenced later black comedians like Richard Pryor and Whoopi Goldberg. While traveling the circuit, Moms experienced overt racism, which she cleverly began to address in her acts. Despite the critical content of her message, her popularity soared among blacks and whites. Shirley Richardson, executive director of the M Ensemble, speculates: "Moms was the right combination of things. She had a white promoter, and her act was unusual." As was her appearance: Her raggedy dresses and nappy hair looked outrageous, but her guise as a harmless granny disarmed and charmed her audiences.
The set for Jackie "Moms" Mabley, Live! depicts a stage in the legendary Apollo Theater, with a silver sign boasting the name of the venue overhead, a piano sitting stage left, and a small table with a pitcher of water to the right. A Forties-style microphone stands at the center of the empty stage. Although this is essentially a one-woman show, the peripheral characters -- Luther the accompanist (Ronald Smith), the Apollo stage manager (Genero Velez), and the announcer (Doran Cooper) -- combine to add a level of verisimilitude to the performance. Luther is a subtle presence on the stage. Dressed in all black, he, like the piano, is a nearly invisible yet crucial part of the act. When the announcer's baritone fills the air with "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Apollo, New York's liveliest nightspot right in the heart of Harlem," the audience feels very much a part of the nightclub scene.
The actress Bukanla, in the title role, utterly captures Moms's colorful and complex humor. At the beginning of the show, she swaggers on stage wearing a white floppy hat with a sunflower pinned to it, a faded floral-print housedress, argyle knee socks, and black Converse sneakers. Her top teeth are missing. She moves slowly, gets a glass of water, looks up at the audience as if she has just noticed us, and confides, "You know, I'm a lucky lady. I got a cigarette lighter and a man, and they both work." It's this sense of presence and timing that elevate Bukanla's performance from the mere retelling of someone else's jokes to dramatic interpretation.
Moms's comic delivery was as idiosyncratic as her stories and jokes themselves; Bukanla nails every nuance. In her gravelly voice, she affectionately calls her audience members "children." Her voice is slow and deliberate, as she moans characteristic phrases like, "Oh, honey," "Look here," and "I'll tell you." She shuffles, scoots, stands, and sits with her legs spread an unladylike distance. She often stops, pulls a hanky out of her housecoat pocket, and wipes her upper lip. These consistent gestures give the show cohesion, sustaining what otherwise would be a mere intermingling of songs, punch lines, and stories.
Bukanla manipulates the distance between herself and her "children" effectively. Sometimes she seems to be talking to no one in particular. At other moments she shamelessly flirts with the men in the crowd, winking at the rest of the audience members. Not only does her way of relating to the audience reinforce the Apollo mood, it provides a platform for Moms's astute social commentary. Between the winks and "You so ugly" jokes that have been a staple in black comedy from Redd Foxx and his character's purse-slinging sister-in-law Esther in Sanford and Son to In Living Color ("His wife was so ugly he had to take her to work with him to keep from kissing her goodbye"), Moms takes digs at segregation, busing, and the untruths of nursery rhymes, among other issues.
One of the ingenious ways Moms did this was through song, taking the lyrics of popular tunes and twisting them into bitingly satirical ditties. An example that appears in this show is the song "School Days," in which she swaps the nostalgia of the "good old Golden Rule days" for a few words on segregation: "They don't study science and history/They study hate and bigotry." A revised "Home on the Range" deals with the racial hatred rampant in the South: "Oh give me a home/Where I can roam/Where the dark and white folks can play (together, that is)."
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.