Moms Not Quite the Word

A collaborative effort doesn't make it as an homage

The real Moms Mabley was a trip. The woman recalled in Jackie "Moms" Mabley Live at the Shores Theater deserves our respect, and her old routines can still get more than a laugh or two. But not even Latrice Bruno's delicious impersonation can gloss over how little the late T. G. Cooper did in his script to bring this African-American treasure back to life. This collaboration between the Shores Theater and the M Ensemble Company has promise for both groups, but their first venture is not so much half-baked as not quite ready for the oven.

Moms Mabley was born in North Carolina in 1894. Her early life was no comedy: She was raped twice, and twice made pregnant, before the age of 13. At 14 she moved to Cleveland, found a place in vaudeville and never looked back. She headlined at the Cotton Club, and from 1939 to well into the 1960s she appeared at the Apollo Theater more often than any other performer.

Her comedy had bite. Baby Boomers with long memories recall Moms Mabley as a toothless little lady in an appalling housecoat and falling socks, spouting outrageous stuff on Merv Griffin or Ed Sullivan. Surprising us until the end, Moms Mabley had her biggest hit of all with a cover of Dick Holler's "Abraham, Martin, and John." She sang it straight, and she broke a lot of hearts. Mabley died in 1975.

Very little of this makes it into the Shores. Cooper's compilation of chunks from her old scripts only goes to show that -- without some sort of historical context-- yesterday's edgy humor over time can become, well, dippy.

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Octavio Roca