When Whoopi Goldberg made plans to revive her one-woman Broadway show on Moms Mabley, she ran into a problem: few people remembered the comedy pioneer, who died in 1975.
Goldberg shelved the show and switched to making a documentary on Mabley and her place in American culture. “She loved to tell stories,” Goldberg told ABC’s Good Morning America. “There’s something about Moms, in finding that she had such a large part in civil rights, that she was the first female stand-up, and how funny she was—the jokes stand up to today.”
Born Loretta Mary Aikin in the Brevard N.C., of 1894, she was one of 16 children. Loretta ran away to Cleveland at age 14, joined a traveling minstrel show, and came out as a lesbian at age 27. She became one of the most successful performers on the Chitlin’ Circuit, earning $10,000 a week at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem at the height of her popularity.
Goldberg ran a Kickstarter campaign to fund the documentary, which premiers on HBO tonight at 8 p.m. Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy, and Joan Rivers lent their time and talent to this project, to help rescue Mabley from the margins of cultural memory.
Despite 50 years on stage, few recordings of the comedian exist, partly because African-American acts often went undocumented through most of the 20th century. Goldberg and her production crew fill the void with animated re-creations of Mabley’s creative genius. Her material was often blue, as Cosby notes, but she cracked the mainstream during the 1960s, when she performed at Carnegie Hall and on television for “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Smothers Brothers.”
Mabley’s racy jokes and biting punchlines cut to the racial tensions of the era. “I wanted this to be a reminder of what we fought for, how we did it, the various ways people used their artistry to say, hey, we’re going to make a change,” Goldberg said.
Goldberg’s directorial debut airs tonight. Watch this brief snippet below: