As portrayed by Charisma Wooten, legendary comedian Jackie “Moms” Mabley was a walking joke book, sometime singer, and engaging storyteller. This show evoked comedy records that were popular in the ’50s and ’60s and trailblazing female comedians like Phyllis Diller and the fictional Sophie Lennon (Jane Lynch) in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel from Amazon TV. The Helen Hayes–nominated A Night with Jackie “Moms” Mabley was an uproarious evening of rib-tickling fun.
Jackie “Moms” Mabley (born Loretta Mary Aiken), a veteran performer of the Chitlin’ Circuit of African American vaudeville, started her career on the stage in the 1920s. Later, Mabley released comedy albums, starred in the film Amazing Grace, made cameos in films like Emperor Jones, and appeared on shows like The Ed Sullivan Show and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. She performed with luminaries such as band leader Count Basie, comedian Redd Foxx, and singer Pearl Bailey.
Presented by The Essential Theatre in the black box theater at Anacostia Arts Center, the setup was this: Pianist Everett P. Williams (Luther) sat at an American-flag-draped piano, house left. Using a lectern, microphone, and chair, Wooten appeared in an old house dress and a frumpy hat. The show alternated between Mabley’s comedy and Luther’s ivory tickling.
It was Mabley’s comedy trademark to prefer handsome young men over “old washed-up geezers.” Using her raspy-voiced delivery, Mabley compared being married to an old man to pushing a car up a hill with a rope and called another old suitor “so ugly he hurt my feelings!” Mabley didn’t like “nothing old but money.”
Mabley was liberal with double entendres. She spoke of a relative who believed that old fairytale about “pussy in a well” and “got himself drowned.” Mabley told an audience member, “If I had my chest out like that, I’d be dead before six o’clock.” Luther didn’t escape comedic scrutiny either: “Luther get your hands out of your lap, you’ll go crazy.” She borrowed a joke from Redd Foxx: “What’s the difference between fish and meat? You can’t beat fish.”
Other jokes and stories Mabley told touched on racism, sexism, and the reality of being a trailblazing performer. The show opened with Mabley imploring God to give her the chance to perform and take care of herself and her child. She had a total of six children. This show made me want to learn more about comedians of that era. Incidentally, actor Wanda Sykes portrayed Mabley in the season three finale of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
Mabley sang many songs including “Two Old Maids Where Lying in Bed,” which included audience participation. She moved into more serious territory with “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” and “Strange Fruit.” Luther contributed his vocals to “I’ll Fly Away,” the only words he vocalized during the show.
A Night with Jackie “Moms” Mabley will brighten your evening, and you will certainly laugh out loud. It is replete with engaging storytelling, humor, and lively tunes. My recommendation is to grab a ticket and check your troubles at the door.
Running time: 90 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission
A Night With Jackie “Moms” Mabley plays through October 9, 2022, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm, Sundays at 4 pm presented by The Essential Theatre performing at Anacostia Arts Center, 1231 Good Hope Road SE, Washington, DC. Pay-what-you-can tickets are available at the box office one hour before each performance. Advance tickets ($33) are available online. Happy hour begins one hour before the show.
COVID Safety: Masks are required for all patrons inside all theaters during performances at Anacostia Arts Center.
A Night with Jackie “Moms” Mabley
Charisma Wooten: Jackie “Moms” Mabley
Everett P. Williams: Luther, the pianist
Essential Theatre to present ‘A Night with Jackie “Moms” Mabley’ comedy cabaret (news story September 5, 2022)