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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
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
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
7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-545-8100. $36.50 to $42. Plays
Friday to Sunday, November 1 through 3.
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