There are times it seems Tyler Perry gets it from all sides. Critics attack his plays and films for being both too sappy and mawkishly melodramatic on one hand and too slapsticky low-brow silly on the other.
And other African-American filmmakers (like Spike Lee) and black cultural leaders often accuse the playwright, director, TV producer, and comic actor of pandering and playing to broad, negative stereotypes of African Americans.
(When that happens, I’m guessing the New Orleans-born and Atlanta-based Perry just lays back and rolls around in his giant vats of money–this fall Forbes named him the highest-paid male in entertainment, having earned $130 million last year alone.)
I admit, I didn’t pay much attention to Perry’s films and plays until a few years ago. But once I did, I was surprised to find that a) I was laughing a lot at them, especially at Perry’s big, broad, over-the-top cross-dressing creation Mabel “Madea” Simmons, and b) I often found myself moved by the earnestness of Perry’s (yes, also big and broad) messages.
Since then I’ve gone back and caught up with many of Perry’s films and plays. I admit, I lean toward the Madea comedies, and prefer humor over the relationship heartbreak stuff, but I was impressed by last year’s For Colored Girls–his first film adapted from outside material, and his first true attempt at awards credibility. Like most of Perry’s work, For Colored Girls wasn’t perfect, but it was impassioned and well-intentioned. And I’m finding that goes a long way with me when it comes to Perry.
Other Things I Like About Tyler Perry Films and Plays
Madea is funny. Sure, by now she’s a walking collection of catch phrases and ill-tempered character ticks, but dang if I don’t still laugh at them–for all his melodramatics as a writer and director, people sometimes overlook what a fine comic performer Perry is.
Plus he surrounds himself and Madea (and his other running character, Grandpa Joe) with comic actors who can keep up, like Cassi Davis’ Aunt Bam, David Mann’s Mr. Brown, and most recently in A Madea Christmas, Patrice Lovely’s hilarious Hattie. All these characters (and performers) spring from the stage and yes, they still aim their (literal) slapstick for the back rows. But I love it.
I personally prefer Perry’s more seasoned female characters–the middle-aged mothers maybe a bit worn down by life, but still full of strength and wisdom. And he gives these rich roles to some terrific actresses, including Loretta Devine in For Colored Girls and Madea’s Big Happy Family, and Chandra Currelley-Young and Cheryl Pepsii Riley in his stage productions.
All of Perry’s films start out on the urban theater (or chitlin’) circuit stage, including his earliest successes, Diary of a Mad Black Woman and Madea’s Family Reunion. The plays are longer, more sprawling, and filled with a lot more songs (including, almost always, a singing and dancing celebration at the end), but I really enjoy them.
There’s a looser, sometimes sillier feel to the plays, and a strong sense of family among the performers. And recently Perry has taken to using the live performances as a pulpit, sometimes letting Madea deliver long, rambling lessons about family, God, and life, or sometimes stepping outside the character to do it himself. Which brings me to my final point…
There’s no doubt Perry has an ego, but I’ve always felt he truly believes what he says–it’s not just an attention-grabbing, self-aggrandizing stunt.
Last winter I was watching the play version of Madea’s Big Happy Family on DVD, and there’s a point toward the end where Madea goes off on a very long, mostly improvised monologue on all those Perry lessons and themes. Soon it wasn’t Madea up on stage anymore, but just Perry, passionately speaking from his heart to the people in the theater–not as an audience, but as his fellow humans. It may not have been subtle or artistically nuanced theater, but I was deeply moved by his obvious convictions.
Tyler Perry Films and Plays at Redbox
Last spring’s film version of the play features strong performances from Loretta Devine and Shad ‘Bow Wow’ Moss as well as the first screen appearance of Cassi Davis’ delightful Aunt Bam.
Madea and Aunt Bam invade a rich black upper-class family’s Cape Cod holiday getaway with the expected riotous results. The usual Perry themes (women loving the wrong men, older family members with secrets) are given a class-conscious spin, but as always in the plays, there are some favorite performers and some impressive new faces. (Especially the aforementioned Patrice Lovely) And of course there’s good old-fashioned gospel Christmas singing.
Perry and Madea don’t appear on stage in this 2009 play about the struggling tenants of an inner-city apartment building. But while the story is full of Rent-style drama, the comedic end is nicely held up by Palmer Williams, Jr as Floyd, the building’s super. Though it’s timed to comment on the current economic hard times, Laugh also features one of the plays’ most joyous and fun musical sing-and-dance-alongs at the end.