`Moms' pays tribute to black comedienne

Moms Play by Alice Childress, with music and lyrics by Nathan Woodard and Miss Childress, additional music and lyrics by Grenoldo Frazier. Directed by Walter Dallas. Jackie (Moms) Mabley has joined the Off Broadway biographical portrait gallery that now includes Billie Holiday, Groucho Marx and his brothers, and Carlotta Monterey. With ``Moms,'' at the Hudson Guild Theatre, writer Alice Childress offers what her subtitle aptly describes as ``A Praise Play for a Black Comedienne.''

Indeed, this is more than a fragmentary life story of a remarkable black entertainer who became a vaudeville headliner in the segregated theater of her time. Affection and admiration mingle in the writing and in the performance of the title role by Clarice Taylor (best known as the lovable grandmother of ``The Cosby Show''.

Moms's recollections unfold mostly within a theatrical milieu (well simulated by set designer Rosario Provenza) and in company with two close colleagues. Although they play a number of incidental roles, Grenoldo Frazier is well and principally occupied as foil and piano accompanist, while S. Epatha Merkerson serves the proceedings as wardrobe mistress, confidante, and occasional peacemaker. The two supporting players add much to the liveliness, authenticity, and feeling of camaraderie that characterize the performance, staged by Walter Dallas.

At its heart is the comic spirit of Moms herself. Interwoven with the comedienne's personal recollections are the earthy, impudent, broadly satirical routines with which Moms Mabley (pronounced Mae-blee) entertained audiences across the color spectrum. ``The rich don't steal,'' she observes, ``they misappropriate.'' And again, ``Not being highly educated, I had to use my mind.'' But when she remarks, ``I am an aware person,'' the spectator realizes how much the awareness figures in Moms's style of boisterous but often sharply verbal comedy. All this plus some irresistible clowning and fleet footwork add up to a portrayal which is a credit to Miss Taylor, as well as a tribute to Moms Mabley.

In its reminiscent mood, ``Moms'' touches on a sordid incident in its heroine's childhood, the disapproval with which her family viewed her debut efforts, having her children taken away from her, and the life and times of the black vaudeville circuit. (To assuage her relatives, Loretta Mae Aitken became Moms Mabley, the last name borrowed from a fellow entertainer and passing romance.) The play's principal plot device involves a falling out between Moms and the latest in a line of pianist-chauffeurs, all named Luther. His peace offering is one of the more charming songs by Nathan Woodward, Miss Childress, and the invaluable Mr. Frazier, which provide the incidental music for ``Moms.''

Besides the adaptable Provenza setting, the Hudson Guild production benefits from Robert Wierzel's lighting and a wardrobe of costumes by Judy Dearing that ranges from thrift-shop motley to dressy elegance. Andy Torres attended to the musical staging. ``Moms'' is scheduled to continue through March 1 - all too short a run.

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