When You’re Good to Mama
When I was home for spring break, I went with my family to see Chicago at our local dinner theater. I had a HUGE Chicago phase when I was in middle school– it’s almost embarrassing– but I hadn’t seen the play or the movie in years. Looking back on it after seeing it again, I missed a lot of what was going on in that play, especially during Matron “Mama” Morton’s “When You’re Good to Mama.” You know, the one Queen Latifa sang in the movie version? I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that I was just a quasi-oblivious twelve year-old who really like jazz, but when I looked into it further I noticed a lot of differences between the stage version I’d seen once and the movie version let’s just say I saw more than once.
In the stage version of Chicago, Matron “Mama” Morton is a butch lesbian. Below is a clip from the movie, with Queen Latifa as Mama singing “When You’re Good to Mama.” Is it just me, or is this Mama neither butch nor even definitively a lesbian?
If you consider the lyrics of the song in the context of the all-women prison that Mama runs, and if you isolate the scenes which take place in the “reality” of the prison, the meaning is relatively clear. What complicates the meaning in this clip, I think, is its layers of performance. Mama sings for a rich, white, heterosexual, and predominantly-male audience. Almost all of sexual innuendo is directed at men in the audience, when in reality Mama interacts mainly with women. The gray uniform (with pants and a high neckline) that she wears to work is replaced by a shimmering and low-cut silk dress while she sings for the audience. Mama is sexualized (read: heterosexualized) in her performance on stage, but is desexualized in the context of the women’s prison.
I’ve created a visual representation of the layers of performativity in this scene, in the contexts of race, class, gender, and sexuality. You can click on it to make it bigger.
The original play does not have this song literally performed to a heterosexual male audience, and I’m not sure whether the movie was trying to make a statement or if the scene was changed for other reasons. The movie medium does allow for more costume and set changes, so the change may have been envisioned to make the scene more visually appealing. The scene may also be playing off of some sort of “girl-on-girl” fantasy of the heterosexual male. Alternatively, the director may be making a statement about the exclusion of a non-heterosexual sexuality from discourse, even in the so-called era of sexual freedom of the 1920s… maybe…