The Gospel According to Tyler Perry
Minutes into Tyler Perry’s latest stage production, Madea Goes to Jail, the playwright shows the audience just how little regard he has for tardiness — and the fourth wall. The crowd in St. Louis’ ornate Fox Theatre, mostly black folks in red Valentine’s Day-themed finery, cheer as the 6-foot-5 Perry takes the stage as Mabel ”Madea” Simmons, the sharp-tongued, pistol-packing grandmother made notorious by last year’s surprise hit Diary of a Mad Black Woman. Quickly, though, Perry’s attention snaps to stragglers inching down the center aisle. ”Get somewhere and sit down,” Madea chirps. ”The show starts at 8 o’clock.”
Such irreverence coupled with a closeness to his fans has helped Perry, 36, become one of the hottest commodities in Hollywood. First he built a multimillion-dollar empire doing shows on the ”chitlin’ circuit,” an off-the-grid network of frequently faith-based theaters catering to black audiences. Then, famously, he delivered those same audiences to movie houses to see Diary, which, though widely panned by critics, dropped industry jaws when it opened at No. 1 at the box office last Feb. 25 and made $22 million its first weekend, despite playing in fewer than 1,500 theaters. (The film ultimately grossed $50 million.) Not quite Passion of the Christ numbers, but the lesson is the same.
”There were people who were underserved,” says Perry, ”who wanted films with no gratuitous sex, no profanity, no extreme violence. [My audience is] African Americans who profess Christianity. It’s largely African-American women.”
Perry is poised to pack movie-theater pews once again this week with Madea’s Family Reunion, which this time he directed as well as wrote and produced. Like Diary, the film focuses on the struggling women in Madea’s dysfunctional extended family and features Perry’s peculiar mix of broad comedy, melodrama, and heavy-handed gospel. To make Diary, Lionsgate only matched the $2.5 million Perry ponied up himself. The studio has since had a revelation.
”The film played much more broadly on DVD than it did theatrically,” says Lionsgate president Tom Ortenberg, whose studio has sold millions of DVDs of Diary and several other Perry plays — to both black buyers and white — and put up Madea’s reported $6 million budget. ”That gives us confidence that Madea will play more broadly from the get-go than Diary did. We’re going to open it in several hundred more theaters.”
In addition to being good business, putting out Perry’s product is good for the soul — or at least good PR. Says Ortenberg, who is already excited about a third installment, ”Tyler’s movies inspire us to want to be better people.” Cheesy as it sounds, that certainly seems to be Perry’s intention. Coming from a ”stormy” relationship with a ”verbally and physically abusive” father, Perry presents Madea — regardless of how boisterous — as a symbol of family loyalty.
”Madea speaks across generations,” says Perry. ”Madea is saying the same things that Bill Cosby is saying but in a way that people are embracing.” That said, after Family Reunion bows, ”it’s going to be a few years before Madea’s on the screen again.” Perry is planning to direct a drama possibly starring Gabrielle Union. He’s producing a sitcom for syndication. He’s open to taking on different roles. Simply put, less drag. How will audiences receive a Tyler Perry without a gray wig and enormous fake boobs? ”I have no idea,” he shrugs, ”but I know that I have to do it, for me.”