05/28/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT
Whoopi Goldberg received her name by divine revelation. "One day I saw this burning bush," she says, "and from out of nowhere a voice said, 'My dear, you have the world's most boring name. You want I should help you?' " The spirit with a Yiddish accent was so convincing that Whoopi now won't give her real name. Instead the performer, whom critics have compared to Richard Pryor and Lily Tomlin, careens through a chameleon array of comic guises, with only a spare skirt, scarf and shades to help her.
In her stand-up routine, "A Broad Abroad," which has been receiving rave reviews on both coasts, Whoopi, 34, introduces herself as Fontaine, a tough-talking street junkie with a Ph.D. in literature. A turn of the head, and she becomes a dippy, air-head Valley "surfer chick." Minutes later, draping a skirt over her head, she turns into a ghetto urchin who dreams of turning white. "I told my mother I didn't want to be black no more," she says. "You have to have blond hair to be on Love Boat."
Whoopi's papa left home shortly after her birth, and she was raised in Manhattan by her mother, a Head Start teacher. Streetwise early, Whoopi "hung out with about 90 other hippies and took drugs" in the '60s. In 1975 she moved to California with her daughter from a very brief marriage, Alexandrea, now 10. Whoopi worked as a bricklayer, bank teller, even a hairdresser for corpses in a mortuary. "It's not a bad job," says Goldberg, straight-faced. "They can't talk back." Eventually Whoopi found acting work with the San Diego Repertory Theatre, and three years ago joined the Blake Street Hawkeyes Theatre in Berkeley. But her longest stint was as a welfare mother. "Just got off welfare four months ago," she says, and soon after got a big boost from an enthusiastic story in the New York Times. She dreams of someday being cast as Saint Joan and is working on a skit about the black comedienne "Moms" Mabley. "I'm an actor, not a comic," insists Goldberg. "The desperation that comes with being a stand-up comedian is too frightening for me."