As the venerable Grandma Huxtable on NBC’s The Cosby Show, Clarice Taylor plays mother to TV’s top pop, but she’s stirring more of a ruckus these days as a different kind of mom entirely. In Moms, a three-character play-with-music about legendary black comedienne Jackie “Moms” Mabley, Taylor has become an off-Broadway smash at 60. The play is as raunchy and direct as Moms herself, but that’s the least of the show’s controversy. For several years Taylor had been “begging everyone I knew,” she says, to raise the $300,000 needed to produce the play about her girlhood idol. Now she finds her triumph shadowed by a feud. Taylor’s old friend Alice (The Wedding Band) Childress, the playwright who wrote the first version of Moms (for which Clarice won an Obie award), charges that Taylor is “profiteering” on her work by bringing in a new writer.
The bitterness weighs on Taylor as she sits backstage in a bathrobe before an evening performance, sipping a cup of chicken soup. But the joy of introducing Moms to a new audience more than compensates. As a kid in Harlem, Clarice remembers “falling out of my seat laughing” after seeing Moms perform at the famed Apollo Theater. She yearned to give audiences unfamiliar with Moms “an idea of what they missed.”
That she does. Audiences who know Taylor only on The Cosby Show are in for a shock. Playing the “dirty old lady” of comedy, she slouches onstage in ratty housedress, slippers and hat and cracks such vintage Moms raunch as: “I married an old man once, but after he said, ‘I will,’ I found out he couldn’t.”
Taylor, Emmy nominated last year for Cosby, says boss Bill approves of her doing the show and that the two “get along great.” But she does have a gripe: “I get a pittance, only $5,000 a segment,” says Taylor, who does five shows a season. “They should be giving me food stamps too.”
Money is obviously a touchy subject between Taylor and the man TIME recently dubbed one of the richest men in show business. While James Pulliam, father and manager of Cosby kid Keshia Knight-Pulliam, put up $30,000 for her show, Clarice was afraid to approach Cosby himself. “People are after him all the time,” she says. “I took him the poster from the show, and he told me to put it up in one of the kids’ rooms on the set. These are the kinds of things he does.”
Taylor’s obsession with doing a show about Mabley dates to a revue sketch she did at a 1981 tribute to the Apollo Theater. But her act consisted purely of Moms’s old jokes. She wanted to know more about Moms the woman. Taylor found little on the record, and so she began tracking down people who knew Mabley, who died at 81 in 1975. Among them was Moms’s brother Melvin. Ultimately a startling picture emerged: Moms, born Loretta Mary Aiken in North Carolina, had seen her parents killed in freak accidents, had been raped twice by the age of 13 and had delivered two babies she gave up for adoption. At 14, she ran away to join the black vaudeville circuit, taking the name Jackie Mabley from an ex-lover and eventually becoming known as “Moms” by audiences she addressed as “children.” Mabley, who Taylor reports later became a lesbian, moved into clubs, TV and film. She acquired a Rolls-Royce and a sable coat but stayed resolutely ragtag as Moms.
In 1985 Taylor gave her research material to author Childress, her friend since 1947. Childress came up with Moms, dealing with both Mabley’s humor and her life, and the play opened a month long off-Broadway run last February, drawing sellout crowds. Before the play reopened in August, Taylor wanted some revisions. Childress did not. “So I said, ‘Okay, I’ll get someone else to do it,’ ” says Taylor. Moms reopened with Ben Caldwell credited as author. Childress is now suing for copyright infringement and unfair competition. “The similarities are Moms’s life, and that can’t be copyrighted,” says Taylor. Childress responds: “They took my play, redid it a little and put someone else’s name on it. I’m not concerned with money. I just want my play back.”
Whatever the outcome of the suit, Childress says, “I don’t see how we could ever be friends again.” Taylor notes that the last time she saw Childress, “Alice gave me this look of hatred, one that I will always carry.”
Still, Taylor is determined not to let the wrangle spoil a career high she has labored so long to reach. Clarice, the second youngest of three children, was growing up in Harlem when she told her father, Leon, a post-office dispatcher, and her mother, Ophelia, a nurse, that she wanted to become an actress. They were incensed, considering “theater synonymous with prostitution.” Her parents later split and her father remarried. It is especially satisfying for Clarice that her stepmother, Essie, 94, sent $1,000 to help produce Moms. “It gave me so much confidence to know she believed in me,” Taylor says.
After graduating from high school, Taylor attended Columbia for a year before going to work in the post office. For 20 years she boxed mail at night, pursuing acting jobs by day. Finally, in 1967, when she was 40 years old, she was asked to join the fledgling Negro Ensemble Company. In 1972, she moved to L.A. with her husband, Claude, a pharmaceutical salesman with heart trouble, and their two children, William, now 27, and Jimmy, 25. Clarice found roles in film (Play Misty for Me) and TV (Ironside). In 1974 she won a role on Broadway in The Wiz, which ran for nearly five years. When Claude died in 1977, she opted to stay permanently in New York.
Taylor insists she has no interest in marrying again because she doesn’t want to be subjected to “anybody’s moods and whims.” She lives in the Harlem brownstone she bought in 1980, and insists Moms is her guardian angel. “I feel like I’ve been holding on to the tail of a comet,” she says, “while Moms is up there directing everything.”