Tyler Perry: The Plays
Available Dec. 4, List Price $79.98
Oprah loves him, but almost no other media power does. Perry writes, produces, directs and often stars, in house-dress drag, as a comically belligerent grandma named Madea in raucous, sentimental plays and films that would be excoriated by critics even if they weren't overtly Christian. Of Madea's Family Reunion, Paul Schrodt wrote in Slant: "Perry preaches unity and unconditional love but lashes out against his upper-middle-class characters in typical fire-and-brimstone moralizing, forcing them to reveal humiliating indiscretions domestic abuse, incest, rape to a judgmental chorus of old-fashioned grannies." The Impresario of Uncool also runs a TV show, Tyler Perry's House of Payne (Wednesdays on TBS). On the Internet Movie Database, the first User Comment is headlined: "This needs to be cancelled at once."
When Perry's work doesn't travel under critics' noses, it goes under their radar. (He's been mentioned in exactly one sentence in Time magazine.) But the man deserves a little respect, if only for building a showbiz empire out of his own ambition and brass. To win creative control of his projects, he often finances them himself. His movies, made for as little as $6 million, gross ten times that at the box office. TBS paid him $200 million for 100 episodes of House of Payne (sorry: Tyler Perry's House of Payne). Taking a cue from his four appearance on Oprah, he's launched his own Internet talk show. A book of his alter-ego's musings, Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings: Madea's Uninhibited Commentaries on Love and Life, was a best-seller last year. After Winfrey, Perry may be America's most bustling black entrepreneur.
He also gets points for quantity. Since 2000 he's written nine plays, of which three have been turned into low-budget, popular movies. He's created his own rep company and sent it out from his Atlanta base to play before millions of theatergoers on what might be called the Christian chitlin circuit. Now seven of his musical dramas, taped before cheering audiences, are packaged in Tyler Perry: The Plays. For anyone interested in an authentic voice in its pure state, this is the DVD to buy. (Though it's not much of a deal on Amazon. The other DVDs reviewed this week are offered at discounts of 25 to 35%. TP: The Plays is on sale at only 10% off.)
The seven plays: I Can Do Bad All By Myself (2000), Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2001), Madea's Family Reunion (2002), Madea's Class Reunion (2003), Meet the Browns (2004), Why Did I Get Married? (2004) and Madea Goes to Jail (2005). I confess I didn't look at all these shows I can't watch 'em as fast as Perry can write 'em but the ones I saw were a revelatory hoot. The dramaturgy is part Neil Simon, part Oscar Micheaux; the music mixes elements of Dreamgirls and the Ebenezer Baptist Church choir; the tone is a violent blend of the earthy and the evangelical.
Blend is the wrong word. Perry's shows are contradictorily, and simultaneously, rude, forgiving, uplifting, demeaning. Comedy will get churning wildly, then stop in its tracks for a confession of spousal or child abuse. (Another strange internal contradiction: Perry has said he was an abused child, and that some of his plays particularly the first one, I Know I've Been Changed are at least emotionally autobiographical. Yet at the end of several of these performances, he lovingly invites his parents up on stage.) For plays that attract a church audience, they're on the gamy side. Most of the women wear low-cut, skin-tight frocks. The men tend to the extravagantly muscular, and will take their shirts of, to the oooohs of the audience. That's just one hint that Perry will do anything to keep all eyes on the stage.
Usually, the supporting players carry the melodrama, and Perry's Madea christened Mabel Simmons shoulders the comedy. Black actors playing fat women is not exactly an innovation, as Martin Lawrence and Eddie Murphy can attest. But the 6ft.5in. Perry, who in civvies has the smooth good looks of a Will Smith, cuts a startling figure. Outfitted in a purple print dress, giant glasses and sandbag bosoms, carrying a purse with three handguns and punctuating every comment with the wave of a cigarette, the star stomps around the stage shouting out advice and ridiculing the supporting players for being too short, too fat or insufficiently black. In these live-on-digital performances, he also evidently enjoys breaking the other actors' rhythm, or chastising them for speaking too slowly. You're encouraged to believe that this is a free-form dress rehearsal, and that Perry takes the director's prerogative to step out of character and boss his cast around.
For the mouthpiece of a Christian playwright, Madea is pretty mouthy. In Madea's Family Reunion she tells her daughter, "Be honest with you, baby, I don't even know who your daddy is. It was one of them nights, chile. All I remember was some Hennessey and a Sealy Posturepedic. That was almost your name: Sealy Posturepedic. Your middle name was gonna be Lumpy." The local pastor asks when she going to join his church and she snaps, "As soon as you get a smokin' section." When a righteous woman quotes Scripture "The Bible says in Second Thessalonians 3 and 10 that if a man doesn't work he doesn't eat" Madea replies, "Yeah, but if a man know how to work in the bed, I'll go get the food to eat, baby. That's Second Heiniken with a Corona and an eightball."
Sometimes relatives get to crack jokes about Madea: when she shows up for a wedding in a gaudy pink dress, one man says, "You look like a fat Energizer bunny." But it's mostly Madea who dishes out the gruel, to every member of her family. Fingering her daughter's silk nightgown, she says, "That's them twins, Polly and Esther, that ain't no silk." Her remorseful granddaughter "ain't apologizing, she's apolo-lyin'." In Diary, the homewrecker shows up at the door and finds Madea looming and barking: "You're gonna hafta come back tomorrow. That's the day she talks to ho's." And if the insults don't do enough damage, there's always her gun-stocked purse. "I got more weapons in here than the U.S. dropped on the Taliban," she shouts. "You don't wanna mess with me."
Madea is more than the comic relief in these plays. She's the moral arbiter, the fearless truth-teller, the preacher of racial pride. In Diary her well-bred daughter says she's going to confront the woman who stole her husband. Madea butts in: "No, you're gonna deal with her like a white woman. I'm gonna deal with her like a black woman."
It's when the characters soar into song, which they do seven or eight times a show, that Perry's plays sound most authentically black. The songs (by Perry and his musical director, Elvin Ross) are more than serviceable, ranging from r&b to Broadway to flat-out gospel. And some of the singers are extraordinary. For Family Reunion Terry Phillips and D'Atra Hicks have a powerful reconciliation duet, toward the end of which Hicks pours out one note for 30 secs., escalating the passion, the ache with astonishing precision and intensity. I've rarely heard anything so thrilling.
Medea doesn't sing; indeed, Perry usually absents himself from the stage when the songs begin. But his voice, as author and star, is clear enough. I have to wonder where he'll raise it next, and whether people beyond his core audience will be listening.