When I get Ellen Sebastian Chang on the line, people are banging down her door for lunch. The writer, director, and prolific force behind the Bay Area theater scene also co-owns West Oakland’s smallest restaurant, FuseBOX. Chang is the consulting producer of Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin’ to Tell You, Whoopi Goldberg’s first effort as a director. She took a few minutes to tell The Seattle Lesbian about her decades-long friendship with the Oscar-winning Goldberg, share her thoughts on Jackie “Moms” Mabley, who spent 40 years as the nation’s only female stand-up, and to dole out some tough-love advice for young people in the performing arts.
Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin’ to Tell You will make its Pacific Northwest debut at the Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival on Friday October 18 at 7:30 at AMC Pacific Place.
Tell me about your film, Moms Mabley: “I Got Somethin’ to Tell You.”
The film is not a straightforward biography because there was not a lot of written information about Moms Mabley’s personal life. Whoopi chose to approach it as more of a tribute to how Moms was influential for close to five decades. Her career started in the 1920s, and she performed right up until she died in 1975. That she stayed very dynamic and relevant that whole time is a testament to her power as black woman at a time when black entertainers were still very marginalized. It was through television in the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement and the very beginnings of integration that she came into the mainstream imagination through programs like The Ed Sullivan Show and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Moms made her television debut on a show produced by Harry Belafonte called A Time for Laughter, which focused on black humor. It was very short-lived. Most people don’t even know it existed.
How did you get involved with the film?
Whoopi and I met about 35 years ago. We were both in the theater company the Blake Street Hawkeyes. I left the company and she stayed, but she and I stayed friends and colleagues and we both talked a lot about how much we loved Moms Mabley as children, how whenever Moms would come on you’d be in front of the TV laughing your head off, even if you didn’t know exactly what she was talking about. Her whole persona really captured our imaginations, and she and I started collecting Moms Mabley albums, listening to them and transcribing them. We started saying, “We have to make a show about Moms Mabley.” And we did, in 1981 we performed her skits and standup at Berkeley, and it was very successful. Whoopi, being the chameleon that she is, really studied Moms’s movements and had the voice that Moms had. We later brought it back as a professional production at the Victoria Theater in San Francisco in 1984. Between that first run and that second run is when Whoopi blew up on Broadway and did The Color Purple. She became a big movie star, but she and I never stopped being friends and never stopped thinking that someday we would like to do Moms again.
In 2010 Whoopi and I were having dinner and she was like oh, you want to do Moms again? I looked at a lot of the material and was trying to figure out how this is still relevant to an audience, and especially to young people, because by today’s standards her humor might be considered corny and tame. One of the things that her humor really made me realize is that sometimes when you’re constricted by boundaries of censorship you are forced to be creative. I look at queer culture now and I think, “Why do you want to be so corporate and mainstream?” Moms had to be super creative to get her sexuality out there, to make hints. One of the things that I loved about her as I got older and really understood what she was talking about was that being lesbian or homosexual or queer, it was just a fact of life.
What kind of reactions have you been getting?
We were sold out last night at the Mill Valley Film Festival, and we had a very generationally mixed audience. People were laughing and nodding, they were really getting the boldness of this woman. A lot of people didn’t know who she was, so they were asking a lot of questions—“How can I find out more about her life?” “How can we get this into schools? Young people need to know about this woman.” I feel that this film will do for Moms Mabley what Alice Walker did to bring back Zora Neale Hurston. I’m hoping it will have an influence in bringing back a style of humor that isn’t so on the head, now that since we live in a world of reality TV and Tweeting everything. There’s a real dearth of what I consider really smart, edgy humor sometimes because everybody’s so spot on, yet I feel like there’s much more political timidity. With what’s going on now in our country, people should be out in the streets. But we’re all so dazzled by Kim Kardashian’s ass that it’s hard to be truly radical in your thinking.
I meet young people today, and I think, you think you’re so edgy with your little tongue piercing and your little tattoo and stuff, but you’re so dull to me. You have no edge to your thinking because you don’t understand the power of really pushing the imagination, because you think there are no boundaries. Yet we’ve got some of the greatest boundaries of all now. Your ass is pushed against the wall because of student debt and so you’re so filled with financial fear that you feel like you can’t take a real risk anymore. They say “pussy” on the radio, and I go “Oh that’s a risk?” Being able to say “bitch” on TV is a risk? Saying n***er every other word is a risk? Young women embracing the word “slut” is so stupid to me, because you’re not going to win. It’s like black folks embracing the word n***er. I’m like, really? You’re not going to turn that degrading word around historically, all you’re going to do is systemically make it worse and worse and worse, but you’re going to color it in a way and dress it up in a way that people think, “Oh, that’s so different!” Moms was edgy to me. She was so edgy in how she got you thinking what was possible. She would say, “Oh, I was at the White House meeting with the Kennedys because they needed my help.” She was doing this at a time that there was still Jim Crow and segregation. Think about saying “I’m openly gay and I’m meeting with the Klan to advise them.” Your mind starts to twist around and go, “Wait a second what’s really going on here, what’s really being said?” I love Moms Mabley. I think she’s really, really important.
You have gone through a lot of material for this project. Have you learned anything about humor in the process?
Humor is about knowing a culture deeply. I’ve always found that tragedy is something that can unite us all. No matter what our sexual orientation is, no matter what our ethnicity is, tragedy is universal. Humor is not. It never has been. There’s things that someone might laugh at in Japanese culture that I don’t get, because I’m not intimate with the culture. Humor requires a level of intimacy that is sometimes impossible to gain. You think you might know what you’re laughing at and the other person looks at you and goes, “I know you don’t get the joke, so what are you laughing at?” Humor is a funny thing, it can be really divisive and that’s why it’s complicated. I know you’ve had this experience, when you’ve laughed so hard with someone that you look at them a little differently and you feel a little closer with them. It’s an amazing feeling, there’s nothing like it.
What would your advice be to young people just starting out in the performing arts?
There’s a great poem by Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese.” She has two lines in it that say, “No matter who you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting.” That has always spoken to me because the world is really your resource, your canvas. Nothing can make you more original than your own perspective. Moms looked at the world in a particular way. There is something, I don’t know if you’re born with it or if you cultivate it, but there’s some people like Liberace, there’s nobody like him, or Michael Jackson. So first and foremost, who are the artists that rock your world? Who are the people that you want to be influenced by, your mentors? Because originality comes from a source, it comes from your ancestors. Moms came from the roots of slavery, the roots of segregation, the roots of homophobia, and she stood up to that in a really fierce way. So the biggest advice I could give someone is don’t be so obsessed with money that you become a chickenshit. I joke that I’m not famous because I’ve never wanted money that bad, what I really want is to be able to say exactly what I believe at any given moment. Start from a place of, love what you, do what you want to do, figure out what you want to be, and go for it. But you had better know what you love and why you’re doing it, because there’s no guarantee that you’ll ever be famous, you’ll ever be rich, you’ll ever be recognized. In a world where cat videos can get 100 million hits, you’ve got a lot of competition. So with that in mind: be more. Take more freedom. I don’t have any answers. An answer is a period, a question is journey.