When one’s cell phone plays a ringtone of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s big booty anthem “Baby Got Back” during a celebrity interview, it’s a bit of a setback. Celebrities typically don’t like to be interrupted, especially by a reporter’s inability to turn off her cell phone, or her choice of wildly inappropriate ringtone.
“What is that ring?” The comedian-actress-talk show host — turned filmmaker — asks. Cringing, I explain and apologize profusely.
“That’s hysterical!” Whoopi Goldberg lets out her signature laugh. “That is great. I love that.” That delight is Goldberg in a nutshell. It could also very well be Jackie “Moms” Mabley, the subject of Goldberg’s film directorial debut. Her new HBO documentary, Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley, premieres November 18.
The first female comedian to make a living as a stand-up comic, Mabley was a black woman who pushed the boundaries of taste, politics, sexuality, and race as far back as the 1920s, when she started performing on the Chitlin’ Circuit, a string of clubs, speakeasies, and concert halls where black entertainers could perform while segregation still barred them from white venues.
Already middle-aged by the time baby boomers saw her perform on The Ed Sullivan Show or The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Mabley’s stage persona reflected her core political values, but did little to suggest she was a lesbian.
“I had always heard rumors and had never seen any proof,” Goldberg says. “People said, ‘Well, I saw her at [a lesbian club] or I saw her here and I saw her there.’ But there was never anything where you could say, ‘Look, here you go.’” That is, until Goldberg stumbled onto a card picturing Mabley decked out in a man’s suit. It was signed “Mr. Moms.” “Baby, when we found that,” Goldberg recalls, “I was like, Hey, I can say it now!”
According to Keith Stern’s Queers in History, Mabley came out as a lesbian in her act when she was 79, and worked the lesbian club circuit until her death a couple of years later. The photo Goldberg found hinted at the butch lesbian that Mabley was offstage.
“When I listen to the gentleman at the Apollo who was talking about how he was her [assistant] and she was dressed as a man,” Goldberg says, referring to a scene in the film, “I’m like, ‘And nobody knew?’ No. Clearly, it didn’t matter to fellow performers.” Mabley would come off stage, take off her comical, grandmotherly costume, change into tailored slacks and a man’s shirt and shoes, put her teeth back in (she wore dentures), and slick back her hair. That her penchant for the ladies (and for men’s clothing) didn’t matter to her male colleagues reveals just how much they respected her as a performer.
“Who she loved was her business,” says Goldberg. “But more than anything, more than being gay — being on the road, that’s what affected the guys. They respected that she worked the way that they did. They were road performers, they worked the Chitlin’ Circuit, they came to New York, they worked their asses off.”
Very little is conclusively known about Mabley’s life off the stage — even her birth year is in dispute — but her stage personae included ribald humor about her (apparently fictional) love for younger men and her (apparently factual) distaste for older men. Some folks said Mabley had been married off to an older man when she was just a girl. Goldberg can’t say for sure; that story could have just been a part of Mabley’s act.
Early on, Mabley cultivated her famous stage persona: Moms Mabley, an old black woman who wore garish housecoats and a floppy hat, and even took out her dentures before performing. She became so closely associated with the frumpy grandmother she portrayed that people thought she was that character. Mabley capitalized on the effect her appearance had on others, using it as an opportunity to address controversial topics — particularly racial disparity in the United States — that others could never have gotten away with. She seemed so unthreatening that several U.S. presidents reportedly invited her to the White House, arguably to provide a black perspective on the times.
Mabley’s career and cultural influence cast a long shadow, extending from the 1920s until her death in 1975. She left behind over 20 albums, dozens of TV appearances and a place in music history with her cover version of the Dion-written song “Abraham, Martin, and John,” about assassinated civil rights leaders Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy. At age 75, Mabley became the oldest person to have a Top 40 hit, a record that still stands.
Yet, since her death, Mabley has been all but forgotten. Even Goldberg recalls discovering that, for decades, Mabley had been the only woman doing what Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, and others would later become famous for. “How come I didn’t know this?” Goldberg said. “There isn’t anybody before her... I don’t think enough had ever been made, even when she was alive, of what she actually did, which was to be the very first female stand-up.” Goldberg was inspired to spend half a million dollars of her own money to produce the film, which celebrates Mabley’s achievements and captures comedians like Arsenio Hall, Joan Rivers, and Kathy Griffin, as well as acclaimed actor Sidney Poitier, reminiscing about Mabley and her impact on their careers.
“Without the Chitlin’ Circuit, I don’t know what [black] performers would have done,” Goldberg says, acknowledging the role the circuit gave black entertainers an outlet during segregation; she hinted it might become the focus of her next documentary — “If
I can get more money from American Express or someone to do a 10-part series about black entertainment.”
But for now it’s all about Mabley and the message Goldberg hopes audiences will take away from the film: “That we’re much better people than we have been telling ourselves we are. That Moms understood us as a nation and where we needed to be.”
Goldberg thinks Mabley would be thrilled with President Barack Obama’s election but disappointed in the racism that remains in our country. “Many young people are disconnected from who we are as a nation,” she says. “I think this would makeher sad... she would see all of these young people who aren’t standing up and screaming, ‘What the hell is going on?’ People sort of thought...that we had fought all of the battles we were going to fight. But we come to 2013 and we discover that some of the things that people fought against, some of the stereotypes that people fought against, are rearing their ugly heads again.” Mabley, Goldberg says, would be wondering, “‘Where are those protests that I remember?’”
“A lot of young people have no sense of history,” Goldberg continues. “No sense of history of the United States. Moms is a great magnifying glass into the past.”