Moms Mabley

I saw Whoopi Goldberg’s show on Moms Mabley.

It’s basically all these current performers talking about what Moms Mabley meant to them, with a few academics thrown in.

To me, they seem to miss the point.

Someone who knew Jackie Mabley when she played the Apollo in Harlem described how they called her “Mr. Moms,” how she was the first woman they knew to wear men’s clothes, how she always had a beautiful girlfriend.   They talked about how Moms had two characters, one off stage and one on.

Whoopi talks about how being a lesbian was OK because it wasn’t nobody’s business in those days.   That’s the only narrative we have about what it was like to be queer in Harlem in the 1930s.  We have to take her word for it to buy her version of the story.

None of the current performers or academics knew the off stage Moms.   They are audience, just like us, seeing only the persona she used on stage.

To me, Moms Mabley makes much more sense when seen as a drag act.    Moms is Jackie’s drag persona, a comedy drag that no straight woman would have chosen to do.  Only a trans-man doing drag (or a butch woman, or a masculine hearted woman, or whatever the term they would prefer) would do this raw a performance every night.

When we consider that Moms was mentored by an act called “Butterbeans And Susie” where the male performer regularly wore blackface in the early days, why should the idea of Moms wearing dragface surprise us?   She grew up in a culture where wearing a mask, especially the mask of a fool placed over deep folk wisdom, was a standard convention.

When we take Moms out of the time and place that shaped her performance, trying to evaluate her as if she was just another standup comedian who played ugly like Phyllis Diller, I think we miss the point entirely.  Sure, Totie Fields and Joan Rivers knew how to wear a mask to get laughs, but theirs was not the same as modernized blackface, nor was it a kind of drag act that covered over gender and sexuality even in a female bodied person.

It’s just another example of how queerness becomes invisible in culture because the audience is removed from it and so doesn’t get the construct, only the surface.

For Moms, the audience getting the surface was enough.  She had that act down, and the chance to perform and get paid for it was what she needed.

Her private life had always been private, so she was not forthcoming about it, which is why Ms. Goldberg had such trouble making this show.   The mask was polished and all the audience needed to see.

Because, I suspect, Jackie Mabley knew they wouldn’t get her real story even if she told them.  They would try to cast it in terms that they understand and lose the meaning.

We queers learn very early that people see what they expect to see.   “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are,” as  Anaïs Nin said

Blackface performers and classic dragface performers knew that.   We knew we had to have a face for show and another one for our own feelings, and we knew that because we were part of a culture that needed us to be cloaked and unchallenging.

And people who don’t have that experience miss the point.

To me, Moms Mabley wasn’t just a prototype standup.   She was a well trained blackface performer who adapted smartly to the new world of standup.   She did a drag act, disguised as standup.

But that notion wouldn’t serve Ms. Goldberg’s point, would it?

A Happy Kind Of Failure

Keith Johnstone, who invented the Theatresports format for impro comedy, says that there is one trick to doing the format right.

You need to fail and still be happy, he tells us.  It’s that happiness that keeps the audience liking you.

That’s the same advice Ms. Rachelle used to give to transitioning transpeople.   As long as the people around you see you being happy, she told me, they won’t question your choices too much.   But if they don’t see that happiness, then they will circle like sharks to tell everyone why you have made a horrible mistake.

Tell people why expressing trans makes you happy, I used to tell transpeople who needed to come out to loved ones, not how much transgender torments you and leaves you in pain.  After all, if you say it’s about pain and suffering, how can people get behind it?

Don’t worry.  Play happy.  “You are the fat girl!” a crossdresser yelled at me during a photo shoot at the old Corvette Americana Hall Of Fame.   “That means you have to be jolly!”   Oy.

On stage you have some obligation to satisfy the audience, especially if you want them to come back again.  In marketing, planning your choices around the audiences you need to satisfy and the content that will engage and enervate them is crucial.  It is all about the audience.

A life that is built around the audience, though, one where you are only product, well, that just sucks.   It’s not really human, is it?  It’s all well and good to know that failing and getting back up again with a smile — a big circus bow — works well in an impro show, because all that is scuffed is your pride, but failing in real life often has bigger damage and repercussions.

I do understand the injunction to be happy even in failure so you keep the audience from wincing, from feeling unpleasant emotions like anger, cut-throat competition or real suffering.   All in good fun makes for a good fun evening, indeed.

Pasting a veneer of good fun over a life filled with failure, though, isn’t really a reasonable ask.   That means losing the ease of the audience, though, means making them feel ill at ease and uncomfortable.

And losing the audience?   Well, that has always made me unhappy,  but not as unhappy as trying to keep a happy and conventional mask on to make others comfortable.   I know they want queers to hide suffering to keep them feeling breezy, but silence == death.

Then again, death == death, too.