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Born Lorretta Mary Aiken in Brevard in 1897, the comedian became known to her millions of fans by her stage name, Jackie “Moms” Mabley. A singular figure in 20th century entertainment, Mabley was a trailblazing female African-American performer who influenced generations of stand-up comics and carved out space for searing commentary though her humor.
And while her star has faded since her death in 1975, Mabley appears primed for new recognition, thanks in large part to continuing interest by the likes of Whoopi Goldberg, who is raising funds for a documentary on Mabley’s life and legacy.
On June 26, Goldberg launched a Kickstarter campaign to solicit $65,000 for the project. So far, she’s raised about two thirds of her goal; the window for the fund drive will close on July 26.
The film, tentatively titled “I Got Somethin’ to Tell You” after one of Mabley’s catchphrases, is poised to be Goldberg’s directorial debut.
Mabley was raised in Brevard and Asheville before leaving the region in her teens to become a performer first on the minstrel circuit, then in vaudeville venues, and then in concert spaces around the country and in national TV and movie appearances.
Her tumultuous early years here are a lesser-known part of her saga. Her father, James P. Aiken, was once Western North Carolina’s preeminent black entrepreneur, but he perished in a Brevard firefighting accident in 1909, when she was 13. She was reportedly raped twice by the time she was 15, giving birth to two children along the way.
A 1987 New York Times article, “The Pain Behind the Laughter of Moms Mabley,” revealed how her trials in WNC shaped her six-decade career as an entertainer.
To many, she was known simply as “Moms,” a nurturing if wisecracking matron full of sly quips about her penchant for younger men. Her routines were often laced with serious but subtle social commentary about touchy matters, paving the way for much that followed in her field.
A few folks around Brevard still remember Moms, and in 1997, on what would have been her 100th birthday, the town renamed her childhood street after her. The residents pitched a fit, though (they reportedly hadn’t been consulted about the change), and the street’s name was quickly reverted to Oaklawn Avenue. To this day, there’s no official recognition of Mabley in her hometown.
For her part, Goldberg aims to probe and showcase Mabley’s rise from troubled North Carolina girl to the nation’s “Original Queen of Comedy,” as she came to be known, according to her proposed project description.
“With her boundary-pushing stand-up she was able to get past the obstacles of all the ‘isms,’ racism, sexism, ageism,” Goldberg said in her Kickstarter appeal. “Moms helped shaped the idea that comedy could make a political and social statement and still be hilarious. She’s one of my role models and her comedy is still poignant today.”