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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the October 30, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Drama: `Moms Mabley Comedy’

Whether or not "An Evening of Comedy with `Moms’

Mabley" is a play or a production up to the standard we had come

to expect at Crossroads Theater is less important than the fact that

it serves to reopen the award-winning regional theater that has been

closed for the past two years. What a reassuring sight it was to see

the familiar buffet of yummy cakes baked by the friends of Crossroads,

and to see loyal patrons gathered on Friday, October 25, to welcome

a new season under new management. It is hopefully a new day for the

theater that had been beset with financial woes.

The first of four scheduled fall shows, "An Evening of Comedy

with `Moms’ Mabley" bears virtually no resemblance to "Moms,"

the play by Clarice Taylor and Alice Childress, and starring Taylor

as "Moms," that I saw about 15 years ago Off-Broadway. While

still starring as "Moms," Taylor has essentially discarded

(or is it disregarded?) the original play. Although she has retained

part of the character’s inimitable and renowned image, there is nothing

in the new show to reveal "Mom’s" controversial personal life.

Instead, musical turns in the form of guest appearances are the threads

that tie together this rather unwieldy and unfocused entertainment.

I have only a cloudy memory of seeing Jackie "Moms" Mabley

on television during the late 1960s. Shuffling out in a bedraggled

housedress and exposing a toothless grin that would make any dental

hygienist cringe, "Moms" proceeded to tell her short and slightly

racy stories in a voice that could only be described as endearingly

naughty. Taylor also appears in a print housedress, accessorized with

a flowered Hawaiian shirt and green and yellow striped socks: A kind

of black Mammy Yokum without the pipe.

"Moms" was essentially a storyteller, not a joke teller. And

her anecdotes on life became archetypical models for such future comedians

as Bill Cosby and Whoopi Goldberg. Taylor, an actor whose face is

familiar from "The Cosby Show" (in which Taylor played the

grandmother), has what can be best described as a tentative grip on

"Moms." I’m pleased that she is still at it, but less pleased

with the changes she has made and how her current enactment diminishes

this colorful character.

The Taylor-Childress collaboration was a play that gave us a vivid

perspective on "Moms" as a self-centered, autocratic, spoiled,

self-serving, and acerbic personality who laid waste to all those

masochistic enough to linger around her. Moms summed up humanity with

remarks like "Negroes and onions will make you cry, but white

folk and green apples will make you sick." Strangely, only the

first half of that line remains in the play. No longer sharing authorial

credit, Taylor has tossed out the old text and retained only the basic

"Moms" attitude and style. She runs with it, unfortunately

tripping herself up all the way. Taylor is no longer the bossy, tyrannical

woman of history but rather a schoolmarmish lecturer with a yen for

the ribald.

With her roots in vaudeville, and particularly admired by Apollo Theater

audiences, Moms demanded center stage until the day she died in 1973.

The current version still gives "Moms" center stage and prominent

places for her often tasteless, sometimes trenchant tales. Missing

is the tough and gritty nature and behavior that made "Moms"

stand out in the crowd of comics. In this showcase, it appears that

Taylor no longer wants to use her own substantial dramatic ability

to embody the overtly abrasive nature of Moms.

Taylor, however, does have a good handle on "Moms" halting

and laid-back comic timing, so that the stand-up routines generally

hit the mark. Some digressions are amusing, including her questionable

memories of her marriage to someone named Doofus ("I didn’t know

Doofus drank until one day I saw him sober.")

I don’t know why Taylor calls the play "An Evening

of Comedy" when in fact it is filled with Moms’ painful discourses

and digressions on black history. Calling her audience "children,"

Taylor gives us some graphic depictions of lynching and the continuing

inhumanity of whites toward blacks. Moms uses her put-downs of her

onstage pianist, Luther (John Stanley), merely as an excuse to launch

into soliloquies about the men in her life, their sexual prowess or,

more to the point, their lack of it.

A fine pianist and the show’s musical director, John Stanley is also

an impressive singer who almost walks off with the top banana award

for his rousing vocal renditions of Grenaldo Fraizer’s "There’s

No One Like My Mom" and "Piano Player Play Me A Rag."

"Moms’" reflections include leaving her baby to be raised

by her sister, memories of her minstrel days, vaudeville touring,

and her eventual success at Harlem’s Apollo Theater.

Along the way such musical luminaries as Dinah Washington, Billie

Holiday, Ma Rainey, and Mahalia Jackson appear in formal regalia.

Monifa Maha’t connects nicely with the Washington and Holiday styles

with "What A Difference A Day Makes," and "Them There

Eyes," respectively.

Marilyn Brewington gives robust accounts of Rainey ("See See Rider")

and Jackson ("Abraham, Martin and John"), and M. Martine Allard,

as Jackson’s Protege, gets into the spirit with "I Go To The Rock"

and "His Eye Is On The Sparrow." The cast and the audience

have a rousing time with "He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands."

Director Walter Dallas had his work cut out for him trying to bring

any cohesiveness out of the scrambled material. What a difference

a good play would have made.

— Simon Saltzman

An Evening of Comedy with `Moms’ Mabley, Crossroads Theater,

7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-545-8100. $36.50 to $42. Plays

Friday to Sunday, November 1 through 3.

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