After the curtain calls for his 2004 theater piece, Meet the Browns--one of the strange comedy-musical-melodramas that have made Tyler Perry a hero to the older black Christian community--the author-director came out onstage to talk to his devoted audience. He confided that he'd been asked to produce a TV comedy series but turned it down because it couldn't be religious. "Did you know you can't say 'Jesus' in a sitcom?" he said, to murmurs of disapproval from the faithful. "They told me that, and I was like, You gotta be kiddin' me. If you don't want my God here, you don't want me here either. God has been too good to me to go and try to sell out to get some money. That's O.K. I will sit in a corner and be broke with the Lord before I will sit there and have them give me millions and sell my soul. It ain't gonna happen."
The battle lines were drawn. Since then, it's been God and Tyler Perry against the Hollywood establishment, which thinks that the films made from his plays are too square or weird to be mainstream and has not invested in them. (His movies are distributed by the indie Lionsgate.) Nor does he get much help from critics, whose reactions to his work range mostly from dismissive to baffled. His wild concoctions of brassy humor and fulsome sentiment seem to them out of fashion without being smartly retro. Perry must figure his critics have their minds made up in advance; he doesn't offer the press early screenings of his movies, including his latest, the film version of Meet the Browns, which opens March 21.
Yet Perry, 38, might just be winning the war. His first play to be turned into a movie, the 2005 Diary of a Mad Black Woman, was made for a paltry $5.5 million yet earned $22 million in its opening weekend on the way to a $50 million gross. A year later, Madea's Family Reunion--in which Perry reprises his signature drag character, Mabel (Madea) Simmons--took in $30 million in its first three days and eventually grossed $63 million. Last fall's Why Did I Get Married?, an ensemble drama about a couples' retreat, made $55 million. And next year he will appear in his first film by someone else: J.J. Abrams' Star Trek prequel, as the head of the Starfleet Academy.
The films are just one arm of a Tyler Perry empire that includes sold-out road shows and popular DVDS of the plays, the tbs sitcom House of Payne (Allen Payne stars, but Perry wrote the scripts, which do invoke the Almighty), the best-selling book Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings: Madea's Uninhibited Commentaries on Love and Life and, on the Internet, The Tyler Perry Show. All of which make him the most successful "unknown" conglomerate in show business. If official culture takes little notice of Perry, that's O.K. with him. He can laugh all the way to the altar and the bank.
There's a reason Perry connects with his audience and exasperates almost everyone else. His plays and movies reside in that once essential, now demeaned genre of domestic melodrama in which family life is a bilious combustion of repressed emotions and grudges that explode into confrontation and recrimination and in which most characters are revealed to be cheating, abused or somebody's unknown daughter. That format, which fed decades of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford weepies, still raises its head occasionally--in the HBO series Big Love or Broadway's August: Osage County. And it's at the soapy, singing center of most Bollywood films. But it couldn't be less attuned to an American movie culture that wants to appeal to young males. They're looking for horror-film screams, not a wounded heart's cries for revenge and release.
That Perry's stuff deals with abrasions between working-class and middle-class blacks, between the restless young careerists and their sarcastic seniors, would seem to reduce his potential viewership even further. Devout African Americans over 30 are a hard demographic to shoot for. In 2005, Perry said, a Hollywood Pooh-Bah told him that "black folk who go to church don't go to movies." Yet from that group he's carved out a strong niche fan base, without much racial crossover. The audience for his first release was 4% white; that percentage is growing slowly but steadily with each film.
There could be one more explanation for the limited if ardent appeal of Perry's films: they're not very good. He casts some prime scene stealers--Cicely Tyson, Janet Jackson, Angela Bassett, Louis Gossett Jr., Jenifer Lewis, Maya Angelou--but rarely draws their best work from them. Most of the actors could wear tags describing their characters: work-obsessed wife, philandering husband, saucy slut, overweight sweetie, bombastic uncle ... and Madea (a conflation of Mother Dear), the wise, wisecracking granny from Heck.
The movies come off like neutered versions of his strutting, crazily intense stage shows (available on the seven-disc DVD set Tyler Perry: The Plays). These are the source material for almost all his films. Onstage, you can see the author and his cast sweating to please a live audience, which hoots its disapproval of the naughty characters and its delight at all that vigor. Also, the shows are musicals, and it's during the singing that they really soar--Dreamgirls meets the Ebenezer Baptist Church choir, and the congregation's spirits raise the roof.
Tyler the Beguiler
Perry's dismal early life could be the source for a play of its own--and, of course, it has been. Born and raised in New Orleans, Perry "suffered from endless abuse growing up," according to his website bio. (He and his stern father have since reconciled; after some shows, he brings his parents onstage.) As a young adult, Perry was homeless for a time. Finding faith in God gave him faith in his creative powers. Taking advice he heard Oprah Winfrey give about putting your grievances down on paper, he wrote exorcising letters to himself and turned them into his first play, I Know I've Been Changed. He settled in Atlanta, which is still his base of operations. Soon he was a one-man off-Broadway, penning and often starring in nine original plays in nine years: 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), Madea Goes to Jail (2005), What's Done in the Dark (2006) and this year's The Marriage Counselor.
Reinventing what was known in pre-integration years as the "chitlin circuit"--black theater and vaudeville--Perry crossed the South and the largely black cities of the Midwest with his rep company of actor-singers. Making a go of such a project would be revolutionary, or counterrevolutionary, enough. But it's the tone of his plays that's startling: a violent blend of the earthy and the Evangelical.