Whoopi Goldberg’s directorial debut, a documentary about Moms Mabley, the first female comedian to make a living as a stand up comic, as well as one of the very few out lesbians on stage during her time, will debut exclusively on HBO on Nov 18.
Jackie “Moms” Mabley, a black woman who pushed the boundaries by talking about race, politics, sexuality, and gender openly on stage as early as the 20’s, donned floppy hats, old housecoats, and even took off her dentures on stage in order to cultivate the persona of a frumpy grandmother.
The persona, Moms Mabley, could directly address hot button issues of her time because her motherly demeanor made her accessible to audiences who found her performance, and the message behind it, non-threatening.
She used her advantage to speak about racial disparity in the United States openly and honestly, a move that not many could have gotten away with in the segregated years of the 50’s and 60’s. She was such an endearing figure, and her voice was so highly respected in her time, that she was reportedly invited to the White House to speak about issues of race with the President on multiple occasions.
The Moms Mabley persona became so convincing that many believed Jackie was Moms, on and off stage– though nothing could be further from the truth. Coming out at the age of 27, Mabley was reportedly a dandy butch lesbian, known for her sartorial finesse and her ability to hang with the boys.
“Offstage Moms Mabley is a striking figure in tailored slacks, matching sports shirt, italian shoes, horn-rimmed glasses, and teeth. She looks utterly sophisticated,” reported Ebony Magazine in 1962.
Goldberg had heard rumors of Mabley’s lesbianism but didn’t know for sure until she stumbled on a postcard of Mabley cutting a clean figure in a men’s suit. The card was signed “Mr. Moms.”
“Baby, when we found that,” Goldberg told the Advocate, “I was like, Hey, I can say it now!”
Mabley would leave the stage and don men’s clothes to hang out with the boys backstage– playing checkers between sets was her favorite past time. Her sexuality wasn’t important to her colleagues in the comedy circuit, where hard work and dedication, as well as a strong personality, were highly respected.
“Who she loved was her business,” said Goldberg. “More than anything, more than being gay — being on the road, that’s what affected the guys. They respected that she worked the way that they did. They were road performers, they worked the Chitlin’ Circuit, they came to New York, they worked their asses off.”
Moms Mabley is an important figure in queer black history, one that Goldberg is intent on bringing back to life after decades of obscurity, who through her stage presence and status as an out lesbian challenged the cultural norms and political climate of a nation deeply segregated around issues of race and gender.
“There isn’t anybody before her… I don’t think enough had ever been made, even when she was alive, of what she actually did, which is to be the very first female stand-up,” Goldberg told the Advocate. Goldberg spent half a million of her own money to executively produce and direct the documentary, which features comedians like Arsenio Hall, Joan Rivers, and Kathy Griffin speaking about the impact Mabley had on the comedic scene, as well as on their own careers.
“A lot of young people have no sense of history… Moms is a great magnifying lens into the past,” said Whoopi of her passion for her work.
The documentary, which was bought by HBO, is set to screen November 18th on the network.