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?