Multi-talented comedienne and actress Whoopi Goldberg can now add director credits to her resume with the Nov. 7 premiere in New York City of Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley, a documentary for Home Box Office about the life and works of Jackie “Moms” Mabley, a trailblazer for African American women in stand-up comedy.
It was only fitting that the Apollo Theater was the site of the first showing of the film. As a pioneer of stand-up comedy by Black women, Moms Mabley was a fixture at the Harlem theater throughout her 50-plus years in show business.
Born Loretta Mary Aiken in Brevard, N.C. in 1897, the performer toured on what was known as the “Chitlin Circuit,” the string of performance venues throughout the U.S. that catered to African American entertainers during the age of racial segregation. These theaters included the Apollo Theater in Harlem, the Regal Theater in Chicago, the Fox Theater in Detroit, the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C. and the Royal Theater in Baltimore.
Goldberg said she patterned her style of stand-up comedy after Mabley, who fearlessly spun monologues on sex, man-woman relationships, race relations and politics.
Moms’ life story was shrouded in mystery, an element highlighted in the film as Goldberg attempted to produce more than a biopic to show that blunt-speaking Mabley was an asset to African American culture.
The entertainer reportedly spent time in Washington, D.C. neighborhoods.
According to longtime D.C. resident Dorothy Chambers, Mabley had a home off North Capitol Street. Chambers said that, although the comedienne wasn’t seen often, she was always nice and just as “funny as can be all of the time.” It was this benevolent spirit that Goldberg said she wanted to embody in the film.
In the film, Mabley is depicted as a mentor for young entertainers and a political activist. The documentary includes testimonials by entertainers who told stories about Moms’ effervescent personality and her ability to separate her own identity from the character she portrayed.
Entertainment industry notables on hand for the premiere included Quincy Jones, Bill Cosby, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Joan Rivers, and Jerry Stiller. The film showed Mabley's ability to tackle thorny topics such as race relations with humor, wit and grace. Her influence on the likes of Goldberg, Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, Kathy Griffin and Richard Pryor was unmistakable, as made evident by the film.
Pryor’s daughter Rain was among audience members at the premiere along with other notable personalities such as actress Phylicia Rashad, fashion designer André Leon Talley and dance icon Carmen De Lavallade.
There was also a mention of Moms’ last film appearance in the Stan Lathan-directed movie, Amazing Grace, a comedy based on political campaign in Baltimore. Familiar landmarks, such as Morgan State University, were included as backdrops in the 1974 film. Her final speech in the film prophesied that young people will drive change in society. In a speech unmarred by her signature toothless delivery, she said: “You got a mouth! Speak out and speak up!!” It was on the set of the film that Moms suffered a debilitating heart attack that ultimately caused her demise.
The AFRO even played a part in bringing Moms’ story to life by providing exclusive archival photos of Moms’ mentors and fellow entertainers, Butterbeans & Susie and The Nicholas Brothers.
The cable outlet Home Box Office (HBO) hosted the premiere, its head of HBO Documentary Films, Sheila Nevins gave opening remarks and introduced Goldberg. Nevins read a letter from “Moms” which detailed the gratitude to Goldberg for finally telling “her story”.
The laughter exploded around the halls of the Apollo as the audience feasted on the film’s old clips interviews and recordings of Moms’ comedic artistry. A young moviegoer remarked, “It’s as if you can feel Moms’ spirit in the room.”
The film drew rave reviews at the Tribeca Film Festival over the summer, sparking HBO’s interest. The film will be shown on HBO on Nov. 18 at 9 p.m.