Seattle University's student newspaper since 1933

The Spectator

Seattle University's student newspaper since 1933

The Spectator

Seattle University's student newspaper since 1933

The Spectator

Remembering a Great Moms on the Stage

    A prominent stand-up comedian of the roaring ‘20s until her death in 1975, Jackie “Moms” Mabley survived great adversity and channeled that hardship into her comedy, making audiences both laugh and think.

    “She asked people to hear in between their laughter,” said Josephine Howell in describing Moms’ clever approach to advocacy.

    Howell, a Chicago-born singer and actor, portrays the legendary comedian in “Hello Darlin’s,” a show in honor of Mabley now shown at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute. As Howell explains, Moms’ comedy is “about life…she learned to find the humor in all situations and used this gift to address and relate to the world.” 

    Mabley was born Loretta Mary Aiken in Brevard, North Carolina, one of a family of 20 children. Tragedy touched her life at an early age with the death of both of her parents. By the time Aiken was fifteen, she had been raped twice, becoming pregnant from both and giving the children up for adoption. 

    Shortly after the birth of her second child, Aiken ran away from home and began her career as a comedian in show business with the African-American vaudeville circuit. It was here that she met boyfriend Jack Mabley; she took his last name as her own, stating that “he took a lot of me, the least I could do was take his name.”

    By 1940, Mabley was the first female comedian to perform at The Apollo Theater in Harlem and she appeared on its stage more times than any other performer at the time. She went on to achieve national fame with the releases of her recorded comedy albums, with her debut “The Funniest Woman Alive” earning gold-certified status. At the height of her career, Mabley was earning $10,000 per week, a salary that was unprecedented among female comedians.

    In addition to these professional achievements, Mabley is also credited with quite literally setting the stage for freedom of expression on previously taboo social topics. At the age of 27, Mabley came out as a lesbian, subsequently crafting her signature onstage persona by wearing men’s tuxedos and housedresses while spewing out her quick-witted quips.

    The content of her routines throughout her more than 50-year-long career contained a mixture of critical remarks toward the U.S. social and political climate, along with salacious sexual innuendo. Although these subjects dominated her performances, it was her maternal persona that earned her the nickname “Moms.” Mabley was best known for inviting her audience to ponder the content of her routines while making them laugh at the same time.

    Though many of the issues she addressed onstage remain today, it seems that Mabley has been largely forgotten by contemporary culture. “Hello Darlin’s: Moms Got Something to Tell You!” seeks to address this. The show is a series of re-enactments of her comedy routines with the vivacious Howell as Mabley. Howell lights up the stage with her uncanny imitations of Mabley’s wide-eyed fervor and distinctive voice, which made the two-hour performance seem to fly by.

    If one can judge Howell’s performance by the audience’s reaction, she excelled beyond belief. Those around me rocked back and forth with unadulterated delight and I couldn’t help bursting out with laughter. Yet, true to Moms’ advocacy at her own performances, portions of the show take on a far more serious tone.

    When I asked Howell what she thought were the most prevalent messages Moms addressed in her comedy, she said, “Love everybody, be strong in who you are, don’t judge by the content of the skin and don’t let nothing beat you down.”
    These heartfelt ideals were on full display during the performance as Howell channeled Moms’ spirit while singing her chart-topping song “Abraham, Martin and John.”

    “When I’m on stage, I feel that I’m standing on the shoulders of Moms, my ancestors, all those before me that are the reason I can do what I love,” Howell said.

    Mabley used the universal language of laughter to state the truth within a palatable medium. She is an iconic woman and a powerful player in the fight for social equality.

    “Hello Darlin’s: Moms Got Something to Tell You!” will be showing until October 26 at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute. Tickets range from $10 to $25.
    The editor may be reached at [email protected]

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