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Comedienne Mo’Nique on Moms Mabley, George Wallace, and showbiz equity

Updated September 2, 2021 - 9:01 am

Mo’Nique has always readily accepted her role as a cultural and industry leader. She’s earned it, as an Academy Award winner for best supporting actress in 2009’s “Precious” and as the first Black female comic to headline a residency on the Strip, at the SLS (now Sahara) from January through July 2019.

The comic-actress is being honored for her contributions to the comedy industry and culture at Saturday’s 30th annual African-American Humor Awards show at Luxor’s Lotus Hall (the show runs from 6 to 8 p.m., with tickets $165 to $215, information at eventbrite.com).

Mo’Nique (legal name Monique Angela Hicks) is to receive the Moms Mabley Award for her impact on comedic history.

Mabley was a groundbreaking comic famous on the “Chitlin’ Circuit” of vaudeville performers in the 1920s. She was among the first Black women to appear on such national TV variety programs as “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.”

Joining Mo’Nique as awards recipients Saturday are such comic stars as “Tonight Show” vet and frequent Vegas headliner Jay Leno and Westgate Cabaret star George Wallace, due back onstage in this month. Chris “The Mayor” Thomas hosts.

Mo’Nique is not able to attend Saturday’s event. She is, characteristically, headlining shows in Cordova, Tennessee. She spoke last week of her career, Vegas history and being honored this weekend:

Johnny Kats: This is a really prominent award, and you’re deserving of it by any measure. How does it feel to be at this point in your career?

Mo’Nique: By the grace of the universe, I’ve been awarded quite a few awards. But to get an award named for Moms Mabley, to know that woman’s journey, her brilliance and her unwillingness to give up or give in, it’s really an honor. If I live to see my great-grandchildren out there, I’ll say, “Let me tell you about this.”

Moms Mabley had to overcome abuse from a very young age, and overcome a very oppressive culture for Black entertainers. When did you become aware of her, and her story?

I was aware of Moms Mabley for years. You heard the name but didn’t know the depth of who this woman was. But I really began to find out and understand when I was host of “Showtime at the Apollo.”

Why there?

Her biggest payday was when she performed at the Apollo, and that was $11,000. OK. You would say to yourself, “How could someone so brilliant in the day, (who) has given so much to the world of laughter, have $11,000 be her biggest payday?” But then you understand, she was a Black female comedian who did not get the respect she deserved while she was alive, and who not did not get the money that she deserved while she was alive.

Right now, is the industry where you want it to be in terms of opportunity for all Black stand-ups? Or comedic actors?

It won’t be where I want it to be until they have equality across the board, of course. It has to be across the board. And we are in an entertainment business, not just comedy, where there’s always this issue of just creating simple equality for everybody.

How do we, collectively, make progress?

You know, I always talk about that question. That’s not a question that I can answer. You need to ask the people that write the checks.

You’re joined by George Wallace as a recipient this weekend, a great comic, and a great friend, too. How would you characterize your relationship with him?

George Wallace played my father on (the UPN sitcom) “The Parkers” (laughs). … And George Wallace is my spiritual father. When there are no lights and cameras, that would explain my relationship with George. He is my comedic spiritual daddy. He deserves every award, every accolade that he receives. He’s so giving, so sharing, so humble. He’s among the last of a generation of comics who influenced me.

Your SLS residency was groundbreaking, in and of itself. What are your thoughts when you look back on that period?

To be offered that, to play that place, in Las Vegas, I was floored. I was excited. I was walking on sacred ground. I remembered Sammy Davis Jr. having to go in and out of the hotels through the back because he was a Black entertainer. Sometimes I would imagine the conversations that took place, I would be on the elevator, and I would close my eyes and be like, “Talk to me.” I was a grown woman, but I felt like a kid, like wow, I’m this little fat Black girl from Baltimore having a residency in Las Vegas.

Are you eager to come back? Is there anything specific out there that would bring you back to Las Vegas?

Yes, if it makes sense. If it makes the dollars, then it may make sense (laughs). If it makes no dollars, it makes no sense.

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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