Black Box Office: Polarizing Perry

$110 million can't be wrong. Can it?

Playwright and filmmaker Tyler Perry is wildly successful. His "Madea" plays have been turned into mega-successful movies — Diary of a Mad Black Woman and Madea's Family Reuniontook in more than $110 million at the box office.

Perry is also the most polarizing figure in the urban theater world, accused of pandering to audiences and stereotyping African-Americans. Reviews of his movies, which he refuses to screen in advance for critics, have carried headlines like "Tyler Perry Must Be Stopped."

His "Madea" character, a hulking, gun-toting, trash-talking grandma, who Perry plays himself, in drag, has sparked cultural critics like Jill Nelson to accuse him of unfunny "body-snatching," as she said in a recent New York Times article: "[It] generates contempt for and ridicule of and erasure of black women as complex and substantive," she said. The same article called attention to portrayals by Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence and Jamie Foxx that are similar in tone to Perry's.

Tyler Perry's "Madea" character is beloved by audiences, if not critics.
Tyler Perry's "Madea" character is beloved by audiences, if not critics.

His plays carry a heavy gospel overtone and often veer into blatant proselytizing, and his musical sections don't so much propel the narrative as spotlight particular performers' vocal talents. The scenes are intrinsic to a black, churchgoing audience's shared experience.

Even a more secular black audience could feel alienated by certain shows' religious implications and, in some cases, supernatural, "witchy" maneuvers, as when characters wildly fling "holy water" all over the living room stage set, as in Perry's I Can Do Bad All By Myself. Such antics would be comic, if they weren't underscored with rousing gospel music.

Perry's 2005 play Why Did I Get Married?features some of the laziest and most cliché-ridden writing this side of a church pamphlet, but it's sold with a well-tuned ear toward a ravenous audience. But then, pandering to your audience isn't necessarily a crime. Stew (born Mark Stewart), a black musician and songwriter who currently has a wildly successful show off-Broadway — Passing Strange, his first foray into theater — doesn't blame Perry when it comes to catering. (Stew saw such productions as a kid with his grandmother, and he enjoyed them.) "Welcome to capitalism, people," says Stew.

"Tyler's plays aren't as toxic as alcohol, cigarettes, fast food or any of the other myriad poisons advertising forces on the black community, so why all the uproar? His plays aren't killing anyone. If there is a problem, and I'm not sure there is, it is not Tyler Perry. It's his audience. His audience's bad taste is the problem."

Perry has made millions off DVD sales of his stage productions, but bootleggers are making a profit, too. On his DVDs, Perry makes a case for buying his discs direct, that bootlegging is wrong. But Johnson notes that if Perry felt money was coming out of his pocket due to bootlegging, the money was coming back to him tenfold because of exposure. His new TV sitcom, Tyler Perry's House of Payne, premiered last week on TBS.

Then again, maybe Perry's success is the issue. He tapped into an audience that was largely ignored by mainstream entertainment and reaped the rewards instead of creating something new. He takes flak for not striking a revolutionary pose. "I think many people are envious of Perry for drawing audiences like he does," says Stew. "They envy his reach and feel he should be doing ‘better' work. But you don't get his reach by doing an all-black Waiting for Godot, do you?"

Eileen Morris, artistic director of the Ensemble Theatre, weighs in: "When you first start hearing about Tyler Perry, you're thinking, ‘Well, that's not theater.' But that's what you might think. And that's not true." Perry, Morris argues, keeps the momentum going, just like Je'Caryous Johnson (who Morris worked with at the Ensemble), to keep black theater alive and thriving.

Vivica A. Fox, star of Johnson's Whatever She Wants, seems to agree with Stew about Perry. "Tyler does what works for Tyler," she says. "That type of entertainment isn't necessarily what works for me. I'm more cosmopolitan. He caters toward his crowd, and he's been successful at doing that. You can't really say that there's controversy, because that's what works for him. It's just like when you do movies; you got people that are great at comedies; you got people that are good at dramas. Everyone has their niche."

As for the controversy surrounding Perry, Fox doesn't see any reason for it. "The man's working and giving a lot of unemployed actors opportunities. They should be grateful. If it's not for you, don't go see it. Don't go audition for it."

 
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