Jackie "Moms" Mabley is a keystone of American comedy—an African American woman who came out of the closet in the 1920s, was telling jokes about race and class and sex back when Bing Crosby was America's idea of a good time, and influenced everyone from Milton Berle (who is said to have ripped off some of her jokes) to Richard Pryor and Sarah Silverman. In Hello, Darlin's!, a world-premiere solo show, Josephine Howell plays Mabley with the sauciness, attitude, and fearlessness you might imagine from Mabley herself. "Moms ain't dead yet!" she hollers at us from the stage—and, for a few moments, it's easy to believe her.
Hello, Darlin's! is a collage of biographical material, satirical songs (accompanied by the nimble pianist Cedric Thomas), and standup/vaudeville routines Mabley performed throughout the decades. The standup—which ranges from cute jokes you could tell at a preschool to heavy hitters about police brutality, lynching, and what other people's crotches smell like—is a thorough treat. But Mabley's autobiography is stunning. She was born in the 1890s in North Carolina, largely raised by her grandmother (a former slave with a wicked sense of humor), repeatedly raped, married off to an old man by the time she was 15, and encouraged by her grandmother to run away and make a life for herself. So she did, becoming a top performer on the chitlin' circuit, the first woman to headline a show at the Apollo Theater, and the oldest person to ever have a hit on the Top 40 list. (She was 75, the year was 1969, and the song was a cover of "Abraham, Martin, and John," about civil-rights pioneers who were assassinated. Mabley still holds the record.)
Hello, Darlin's! has a few small bugs—some of the transitions and pacing are a little sluggish—but it's the kind of world premiere that should only get better with age. As a lesson in history, comedy, and a remarkable woman who lived through (and told jokes about) America's transition from Jim Crow to the Harlem Renaissance to the Stonewall riots and the Black Panther Party, it can't be beat.