‘Moms’ Mabley tribute show deftly blends humor, history
Josephine Howell portrays the groundbreaking black comedian in a show at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute through Oct. 26, 2013.
Special to The Seattle Times
Friday-Sunday and Oct. 24-26, Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, 104 17th Ave. S., Seattle (206-684-4758 or www.langstoninstitute.org).
It’s a reincarnation! When Josephine Howell steps on the stage, she is Jackie “Moms” Mabley. She wears Moms’ habitual house dresses, patterned shirt-jackets, floppy hats, bedroom slippers and socks. And she’s here to tell it like it is, in one funny story after another.
Though Moms died in 1975 at the age of 81, she’s with us again, thanks to the talented Howell in “Hello Darlin’s: Moms Got Something to Tell You!”
Howell captures the tone, facial expressions, and above all the biting humor of the revered black comedian. Few topics were off-limits for Moms, who from the 1920s on was a star on the African-American performing path known as the Chitlin’ Circuit. In the ’60s she was introduced to a broader audience by her frequent guest appearances on TV. Racism, the attractions of younger men, and even lesbianism were subjects that were mixed into her routines.
In this production at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, skillfully directed by Jacqueline Moscou, Howell is accompanied by Cedric Thomas as Luther the Piano Man, a companion who anticipates her every mood and move. Just a few stage props and a very large projection screen as backdrop are all they need, except for a better sound system.
A highlight of the production is their rendition of “Abraham, Martin and John.” In between the high jinks and the wry humor comes a moment when a photo of Abraham Lincoln is projected on the huge screen. As Moms sings the ’60s song expressing America’s shame and grief over its momentous assassinations, we also see images of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. We see them with their children, in daily life, at political gatherings. It’s powerful theater, remarkable in its effectiveness in the midst of the humor.
Throughout the show, video projections offer a historical retrospective of Moms’ long career, including the time she was the first female headliner at the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem. She talks about opening a show for Cab Calloway and of her friendship with Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. The historical bits combine well with the nonstop jokes and occasional songs.
Note: A new HBO documentary about Mabley, directed by Whoopi Goldberg (who long ago created and performed her own one-woman show based on the comedian’s life and routines), will have its local premiere at the Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, 7:30 p.m. Friday (Oct. 18) at Pacific Place Cinema, Seattle. Info: www.threedollarbillcinema.org.
Nancy Worssam: firstname.lastname@example.org
Information in this article, originally published Oct 18, 2013, was corrected Oct. 18, 2013. A previous version of this story omitted some of the performance dates; the show will be performed Oct. 18-20 and Oct. 24-26.