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Like most of the perks in Jackie “Moms” Mabley’s life, being a hit in Anacostia comes late. Two decades after her funeral, to be precise. Still, the lively show that brings Moms back to her childhood stomping grounds qualifies as a nifty homecomingfresh, bright, and vaguely racy, though in a toned-down way calculated to seem more nostalgic than vulgar.
Known as the cantankerous but lovable “dirty old lady” of stand-up comedy for most of her seven decades in showbiz, Moms spent her formative years just blocks from the storefront where Charisma’s A Night With Jackie “Moms” Mabley has taken up residence. If that fact is mentioned in the show, I missed it, but then, the author doesn’t intend the evening to be much more than a collection of Moms-isms about ugly old men and the randy women they chase (“the only thing an old man can do for me is bring a message from a young one”). Double-entendres abound, as do anatomical references, mostly about the combined effects of gravity and aging on body parts.
Charisma delivers her punch lines in a guttural, Louis Armstrong-style growl that comes pretty close to the Moms heard on ’60s records. And though the performer has a full set of pearly-whites, she somehow also suggests the lip-flapping toothlessness that made Moms’ delivery of lines like “you know, your mouth looks so much better with your teeth in” so distinctive. Add the stooped posture and sprightly shuffling of slippered feet during Moms’ peculiar musical medleys, and the physical impersonation is pretty uncanny.
Capturing Moms’ grouchy motherliness must have been more difficult, but Charisma manages that, too. In fact, the only area in which the performer comes up short is in not suggesting the blunt quality of Mabley’s late-career jokes about race. There’s barely a hint of the sharp-tongued comedian who, during a 1972 appearance at the Kennedy Center, began a fictional phone conversation with Lyndon Johnson by barking, “What you want, boy?” and then sang a lullaby with a verse about “muggin’ time up north.”
At 8Rock, most of Moms’ references to race have to do with discrimination she faced in the early part of her career, touring with the likes of Pigmeat Markham, Cootie Williams, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson on the Chitlin’ Circuit. She didn’t confine her remarks on the subject to the distant past in real life, and it seems misleading to have her do so here.
Granted, when biographical details surfaced as part of the real Mabley’s largely ad-libbed act, it was hard to know whether to credit them. Her pursuit of punch lines led her to invent a marriage to a man so old and weak that at their wedding “somebody threw one grain of rice and it knocked him out.” Interviewers never managed to pin her down on most details of her pre-stardom life, including which year in the 1890s she was born, so perhaps it’s not fair to ask a playwright to be definitive. Still, it would be nice if a way could be found to brush in a few facts unambiguously. At one point at 8Rock, the character growls something about her Cherokee ancestry (she was also part Irish) that’ll likely slip right past most patrons, sandwiched as it is between fanciful reports of bedroom conversations with Cab Calloway and gravel-voiced claims that her true calling is opera (“I’m a real operoony, I been operatin’ for a long time”).
Charisma does step outside the character briefly to perform a semibiographical passage in the first act, but it’s basically a Mabley routine too, complete with a musical number. As written, with sudden third-person references to Mabley (by her given name Loretta Aiken; she took her stage name from entertainer/boyfriend Jack Mabley), the switch to bio-speak is nearly as confusing as it is helpful. On the other hand, it does give patrons a chance to appreciate the impressive physical transformation that’s being accomplished onstage by letting them see what Charisma looks like when she’s in a simple black pantsuit rather than costumer Reggie Ray’s re-creation of the floppy cap, bedroom slippers, op-art leggings, and slip-as-outerwear that Moms tended to favor.
The evening is powered by the bluesy keyboard riffs of Daniel Richardson, who almost singlehandedly turns 8Rock’s unprepossessing storefront into a nightclub. (Actually, he gets some help from the designers, who’ve provided a tinselly curtain and a minimalist blue haze.) Richardson is also a sharp accompanist for the fractured, sometimes mildly bawdy medleys of pop standards Moms crucifies in her act.
Coming so close on the heels of the African Continuum Theater Company’s Nap Does Simple’s Blues, American Theater Project’s A Night With Jackie “Moms” Mabley suggests that one road to recognition for the city’s struggling African-American theaters may be niche programming. Certainly no one else has been mounting this sort of intimate cabaret lately, though groups like the Off-the-Circle Repertory Company used to flourish with it a decade or so ago in downtown restaurants. That such shows can still prove popular is attested to by the fact that patrons are, for the first time, finding the 8Rock Arts Center in big enough numbers to warrant extending a show’s run to seven weeks. When Moms Mabley died in 1975, Anacostia didn’t havein fact, had never hada theater for her to play in. Now it does. And, fueled by word of mouth, it’s booming.CP