Lisa Derrick recommends the new HBO documentary “Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley,” about the first female comedian to make a living in stand-up:
Born Loretta Mary Aitken, Mabley began working as a stand-up in the late 1920s, and made a living on the Chitlin’ Circuit—the vaudeville clubs, speakeasies and theaters throughout the eastern, southern, and upper mid-west areas of the United States where African-American performers were able to perform during segregation. In the early days of her performances, Mabley wore androgynous clothes on stage and worked blue, performing XXX-rated routines. As she developed her act, Mabley took on the persona of granny or great auntie, wearing a floral house dress and a drooping hat. She took out her dentures for her stand-up routine—at the time dentures were common—and riffed on her character’s desire for young men and her distaste of old ones, addressing the imbalance of sexual power, as well as hitting on politics, race, war, and other social issues.
Neil Drumming explains that Mabley’s “broke-down hat, old housedress, and ill-fitting shoes” were “more than a visual gag”:
[T]his entire “Moms” persona was Mabley’s method of making herself non-threatening — a tactic that even the most successful female comedians utilize in order to deliver their unique message in a male-dominated field. “People don’t want to hear the truth,” [Joan] Rivers elaborates. “And if you are going to hear the truth, it’s got to come from a homely lady, a lady that’s no competition, a lady that ain’t gonna take your husband, a lady that is okay, that you can trust because she’s harmless.” This insight strikes home as soon as you hear Mabley’s subtle, irreverent commentary on Civil Rights and the political climate of the ’60s.
Diana Anderson-Minshall says that “Mabley’s stage persona reflected her core political values, but did little to suggest she was a lesbian”:
According to Keith Stern’s Queers in History, Mabley came out as a lesbian in her act when she was 79, and worked the lesbian club circuit until her death a couple of years later. … “I had always heard rumors and had never seen any proof,” Goldberg says. “People said, ‘Well, I saw her at [a lesbian club] or I saw her here and I saw her there.’ But there was never anything where you could say, ‘Look, here you go.’” That is, until Goldberg stumbled onto a card picturing Mabley decked out in a man’s suit. It was signed “Mr. Moms.” “Baby, when we found that,” Goldberg recalls, “I was like, Hey, I can say it now!”