Strange days on the Street. The latest sensation on the Great White Way is an elfin black woman who blows a 90-minute seriocomic solo eight times a week on Broadway's oldest stage, the Lyceum.
She has made quite a name for herself. It is Whoopi Goldberg.
It might as well be Zowie Zitsfleisch or Hurrah Himmelfarb, but it's not. "Whoopi Goldberg" is an invention, a name, she says, "that was given to me at a burning bush."
Whoopi will not even say what her real name is, much less use it. She says it's to keep her "personal life personal," but it is also a brilliant professional decision.
So when the purple curtain goes up and the house lights go down and Whoopi Goldberg stands center stage -- long corkscrew braids, black leather pants, black smock and crazy wisdom eyes -- the crowd applauds her mere presence. The very idea of her! They applaud what they know most about Whoopi Goldberg: the name. Such an ineffable combination of ethnic funk and sublime knowing!
"Hey, Mama," Whoopi says in the guise of Fontaine, a junkie with a PhD who has stolen some "gold-plated digital escargot forks" from an apartment on the East Side. "Hey Mama, that is a baaad ring."
A woman in the front row flashes her considerable sapphire. Yes, she knows from bad. She knows that bad is good and that she is only playing the part of the anxious liberal. It's just a role, for the lady in the front row has transcended such anxieties long ago, around the time of the first fundraisers for the Panthers and Young Lords out in the Hamptons.
"Yeah," Whoopi drawls. "This is a bad-lookin' ring. You want me to hold it for you?"
Oh, and the squeals from the front row!
It's the morning after the show now and Whoopi is sitting in the dark warren of her publicity agent. Day after day she has sat at this very table, flying through the interviews on autopilot, one after the other. Breakfast arrives wrapped in wax paper. She denudes her sandwich and takes a bite and . . .
"Yeeechh . . . aaaagghh . . ."
. . . a minor problem intrudes. It seems Whoopi's breakfast roll contains a dead fly. A big fat one. With wings you can see from three paces. Whoopi is desperately poking around in the sandwich. Where is the other half of that winged critter?
"I think I'll just drink the juice," she says.
For a moment her good spirits evaporate.
But it's just a fly in the sandwich, a slight jolt on the road to stardom. The box office is booming and the publicity machine is thumping. The publicity agent wraps up the sandwich and disappears. The photographer starts clicking away.
Perhaps the most tangible sign of Whoopi Goldberg's extraordinary success is her record-setting performance on the front page of the Oct. 21 New York Times Arts and Leisure section. Cartoonist Abe Hirschfeld has amused his fans for decades by hiding his daughter Nina's name in his drawings. Finding the "Ninas" in Carol Channing's teeth or Jeremy Irons' sweater vest is a Sunday ritual in New York nearly as common as lox hunting at Zabar's. A dozen "Ninas" is a big day.
Then came Whoopi. Forty "Ninas"! Goldberg's locks provided all the creases and curls Hirschfeld needed to hide his daughter's name. Forty "Ninas"!
"That was a joy," Whoopi says, her spirits reviving. "I used to look for the 'Ninas' every Sunday, then all of a sudden there you are -- the man has come to see you twice and there are 40 'Ninas.' I sent him flowers, I was so jazzed."
Whoopi Goldberg was born 35 years ago and grew up in the Chelsea section of Manhattan. She attended the Helen Rubenstein Children's Theater and the Hudson Guild. One of her tutors was the "Million Dollar Movie." Her stage style is largely the product not only of training, but also of a childhood spent watching Gracie Allen and ("best of all, maybe") Carole Lombard in "My Man Godfrey." The brainy junkie, the pregnant surfer girl, the wise cripple, the master tap dancer -- Whoopi's characters all grow out of the wildness of her old celluloid heroines.
Nowadays, Whoopi dreams of "doing a remake of 'It Happened One Night' with me playing either Clark Gable or Claudette Colbert, either one. My job is to go beyond the bounds of imagination."
Whoopi was married briefly 12 years ago and she has a 10-year-old daughter, Alexandrea Martin. She left New York for California and landed roles at the San Diego Repertory Company and later at Berkeley's Blake Street Hawkeye Theater. To make a living, she worked as a bricklayer, a bank teller and a cosmetician at a morgue.
"At the morgue, the job was to make people look good, but they couldn't say anything about it. I'd cross their legs and say, 'Oh, let's try some Joan Crawford lips on you.' It was the best gig I could have gotten. It took all the allure away from death. When you die you become a doll."
In California, Goldberg changed her name.
"The name," she says, "came out of the blue. It was a joke. First it was Whoopi Cushion. Then it was French, like Whoopi Cushon. My mother said, 'Nobody's gonna respect you with a name like that.' So I put Goldberg on it. Goldberg's a part of my family somewhere and that's all I can say about it. It's like Rip Torn, you know?"
The canon of show biz trivia has always included the real names of the stars: John Wayne (Marion Morrison), Cary Grant (Archibald Leach), Alan Alda (Alphonso D'Abruzzo). But Whoopi went a step further. No one but her closest friends and her family knows her given name.
"I'm protecting my family. As it is now, I can go home and live as this other person and even though I might look like Whoopi Goldberg on the street, I can whip out my driver's license and say, 'Hey, but I'm not.' "
Along with David Schein, with whom she shares a house in Berkeley, Goldberg invented the characters that now fill her minutes on the Lyceum stage. She also did some two-character pieces with Schein and a full-length re-creation of "Moms" Mabley, the late comedian who was famous for her basso growl and raunchy patter.
Last winter, twin angels saw Whoopi Goldberg perform her "Spook Show" at New York's Dance Theater Workshop and they lifted her above the avant-garde fray.
The first was Mel Gussow, a theater critic for The Times, who wrote, "It would not be inaccurate to suggest that her comedy is a cross between Lily Tomlin and Richard Pryor, but given the wide audience she deserves -- and with more material -- it may not be long before people will try to compare future comics with the inimitable Whoopi Goldberg."
The second angel was Mike Nichols, who has been a phenomenon as a performer, director and producer. Nichols came backstage after the show and told Whoopi that he had been moved to tears and, please, anytime you want to get something together, just call. When Whoopi got back to Berkeley, she found a letter from Nichols waiting for her. The offer was repeated, this time in more detail and in even more emotional terms.
"That was the topping on the cake," Whoopi says, "Mike just saying anytime, anywhere, I'll produce you."
With Gussow's endorsement and Nichols' unquestioning support, Goldberg opened at the Lyceum Oct. 24. A flotilla of stars including Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams were soon lining up at the door to shower roses and kudos on the Street's newest star.
"My mind is just blown," she says. "It's all happened after years of trekking around to little places, living on $300 a month, being perfectly content."
"I've got carte blanche now. But it's kind of a funny position to be in. There's guilt. You know, why me and not this one or that one? They're just as good. I can't understand why. Why me?"
"Why Whoopi?" is a question asked by more than one critic of her show.
Gussow wrote another festschrift after the Broadway opening, but The Times' principal critic, Frank Rich, was not as enthusiastic: "Her jokes, however scatological in language, can be mild and overextended, and her moments of pathos are often too mechanically ironic and maudlin to provoke."
Brendan Gill of The New Yorker criticized Whoopi's "uncertain intentions"; Sylviane Gold of The Wall Street Journal wished Goldberg "were daring enough to have us like her a little less"; John Simon of New York magazine saw "something disturbingly specious about these numbers and the number Miss Goldberg does on the audience."
The Whoopi Goldberg Variations follow a similar dramatic pattern. They begin with an inventive premise and sharp, funny lines. There is the Valley Girl who chirps, "Before there was the mall there was the ocean. I totally like to be in the ocean. I'm, like, one with the ocean 'cause there's water in it and there's water in me." There's the wretchedly handicapped girl: "This," she deadpans, "is not a disco body." There's the old tap-dancing master who reports, "I don't drink wine. I drink floor polish. Keeps my teeth nice and shiny." And there is the young black girl, based on Whoopi's daughter, who wants to be blond "like Donna Reed" and plays out her fantasy with a white skirt over her own hair.
The pieces try to end not with comedy but with moral heft. Fontaine, the junkie, goes to Europe, visits the Anne Frank House and raps sincerely with the natives: "Through mutual ignorance we were able to dialogue." The Valley Girl performs an abortion on herself with a wire hanger. The handicapped girl announces, "Normal is in the eye of the beholder." But several critics thought these endings were pedantic and mawkish.
Goldberg, who was involved in the March on Washington and in demonstrations at Columbia University, proudly defends her "hippie politics." She was furious when critics hit her for injecting a 1960s sensibility into her work. "Don't give me that pseudo-intellectual stuff about how we've evolved," she says. "I haven't evolved. My soul is still the hippie."