Review: A Night with Jackie “Moms” Mabley

Wooten Wrote and Perfoms Show Based at Anacostia Arts Center

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Charisma Wooten as Jackie "Moms" Mabley (Right) with pianist Luther (Everett P. Williams). Photo: Sharon Farmer/sfphotoworks, Courtesy Anacostia Arts Center

Nostalgia allows us to recall and re-experience memorable moments or events in our lives. You can actually feel much of the same emotion and sense of a given situation as though it was happening again.

This past weekend I went on a nostalgic joyride that left me filled with the same mirth and enjoyment I had when the original situation occurred.

The Anacostia Arts Center is featuring the one-woman cabaret show “A Night With Jackie “Moms” Mabley,” starring the delightful entertainer Charisma Wooten. It is nostalgic for me because I first saw this scintillating show more than twenty years ago, when Ms. Wooten first began performing it under the auspices of the American Theatre Project, directed by Ed Bishop, at the small storefront 8 Rock Theatre, also located in Anacostia.

It was a bold and ground-breaking piece at the time and presented a great performance opportunity for Ms. Wooten. Wooten’s performance received several arts award nominations.

Wooten wrote the show, which is based on the life of comedian and actress, Jackie “Moms” Mabley. Born Loretta Mary Aiken in l894 in Brevard, North Carolina, Mabley became one of the most successful entertainers in the “Chitlin Circuit,” a collection of performance venues throughout the eastern, southern and upper midwest areas of the United States that provided commercial and cultural opportunities for Black entertainers during the era of racial discrimination through the 1960s.

The legendary and pioneering comedienne was a piquant, bold and rules-breaking storyteller who recorded comedy albums and appeared in films and on the Ed Sullivan Show, the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and other mainstream TV appearances as well as playing Carnegie Hall in l962. She was a trailblazer in many ways: a middle-aged black woman in a white male dominated field of entertainment, not conventionally attractive and an out lesbian to boot. Wow!

Ms. Wooten aptly conveys Moms’ persona, donning her signature disheveled housedress, robe, ankle socks and slippers, knit cap and toothlessness. She shuffles onstage beside her piano accompanist Luther (Everett P. Williams). The stage is set with an American flag-draped piano at house left, with Wooten doing her bits using a chair, lectern and microphone at center stage. The “action” shifts between Moms’ storytelling, singing and Luther’s piano riffs.

She sang several American standards: “Everything is Gonna Be Alright”, “Seems Funny That Way”, “At the End of the Road”, “School Days” and “Mean to Me” and “Strange Fruit” (both popularized by Billie Holiday).

The basic trademark of Moms’ comedy was her disdain for old and ugly men. She sang the line, “the only thing an old man can do for me is lead me to a young man!” with exuberance.  She also filled lines with energy, such as her remark that one of her husbands “was soooooo ugly, he hurt her feelings!”

Wooten captures the scathing, but humorous, tenor of these sentiments in a way that would make Moms proud.

If you’re looking for an evening to kick back and have a good time, I highly recommend catching this show.  Ms. Wooten captures the spirit of Moms skillfully with her beguiling, captivating and yes, nostalgic performance.

Running time:  90 minutes with a 15-minute intermission

“A Night With Jackie “Moms” Mabley runs through Oct. 9, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday matinees at 4:00 p.m. It is an Essential Theatre production staged at Anacostia Arts Center (1231 Good Hope Rd SE). The show is 90 minutes with a 15 minute intermission.

Box Office opens 1 hour before the show with pay what you can tickets.  Advanced tickets are available online at www.theessentialtheatre.org