JOHN MCWHORTER SEPTEMBER 14, 2009
At a Christmas party in 2004, a cousin asked me "Do you like Medea?" For a minute I was a confused, since it didn’t seem to be the occasion for sharing our impressions of Greek mythology. But it turned out she was talking about Madea, the massive, loudmouthed, pistol-packing black grandmother who Tyler Perry performs as in drag in a series of "chitlin' circuit" touring shows.
Perry sells DVDs of the shows on line, and ten minutes after my cousin put one on I was hooked. I’m not alone. Madea was the biggest new phenom in black America until Obamamania. The new film I Can Do Bad All By Myself is the seventh in a series of films getting across the Tyler Perry message, most of them based on the plays, and making more money than anyone expected when plans for the first one, Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005), were announced.
The Perry formula was born in the shows, one of which is almost always touring nationwide. Not long ago, in New York it was fashionable to celebrate The Color Purple as "bringing black people to Broadway," with an implication being that theatre is marginal to black American life. Most charitably, one may have supposed that for black people, theatre is on Sunday morning.
But in fact, those colorfully dressed black people one saw gliding down Broadway around 7:50 every night on their way to see The Color Purple were not starved for theatre in their lives. While definitely scarce at the likes of Wicked, black people have always flocked to touring and local "chitlin' circuit" shows, playing to virtually all-black audiences, usually in venues far from mainstream theatre districts. It's a genre rarely written about, only sketchily recorded commercially, and not geekily catalogued on websites the way mainstream musical theatre is. Yet it is a mainstay of entertainment in black communities nationwide, and the Perry shows are part of that tradition, only slicker than the usual.
The shows are one part Sanford and Son, one part musical (mostly gospelly one-size-fits-all power ballads that start quiet, get very loud, and fade out like a 45 instead of ending), and one part life lessons (stock characters include young women going wrong and evil womanizers). Madea brings it all together. One minute she' the pot-smoking ex-stripper who lives on the life insurance from a series of mysteriously deceased husbands, always ready with her pistol when things get out of hand. But she’s also the font of grandmotherly wisdom: in Madea Goes to Jail, the second act included a 20-minute time-out with Madea sitting down and dispensing salty life advice.
While that show was touring, Perry's book of Madea’s wit and wisdom Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings went right to the top of the Times bestseller list. It was an odd book in its way: pages and pages of mother wit from a 36-year-old man. Earlier in his life Perry was disowned by his family and homeless, and wants to pass on what he has learned about survival. But to preach as himself would seem sanctimonious from someone so young, and his message gets through more effectively when served up with the comedic hijinks.
The book was also more important than anyone noticed. Most of it came right out of Mr. Cosby’s playbook of late, and in fact was as stirring a message to make the best of the less-than-perfect as Cosby and Dr. Alvin Poussaint’s Come On People the following year. I sincerely considered it the most important black book to read of 2006, acknowledging real life but showing real ways to make the most of it. Madea had her first child at 16 and now preaches "If you’re just so hot that you’ve got to get some, then what the hell is wrong with a condom?" She gets her licks in on the idea among some black teens that doing well in school is "white": "It's not acting white. It's acting like you got some sense!" She wishes black people would open more small businesses in inner cities, and refuses to hate immigrants who open them instead.
The book is very Zora Neale Hurston that is, the political Zora I wrote about some weeks ago here--in its combination of black cultural authenticity with loving no-nonsense honesty. Madea knows that the black community cannot wait for the Establishment alone to save them: "There come a time and place when you'll have a say and you can change things." If Perry wrote op-eds under his own name and were not known for the Madea character, he would come under attack from some quarters as a dreaded black conservative. Filtered through Madea, supposedly "right wing" thinking on race becomes common sense.
The movies are physically opened up versions of the plays with better acting, with (wisely) songs framed as actual performances--the action in the movies has a way of gravitating around nightclubs and churches to facilitate this. Still, between the quality of the acting--Taraji Henson wrings so much out of the scripting of I Can Do Bad that when in a blooper scene Perry slips in that she deserves an Oscar, it doesn’t even come off as a joke--and the rousing musical numbers (a musical is a musical, after all) the movies are always a good time. I Can Do Bad is, in fact, the best of the Perry films so far, with top-notch performances throughout, fantastic and copious singing, and a story that makes almost complete sense.
Plus, there is usually a person or two cast as a shout-out to the old days: Perry has a strong sense of history and indebtedness. Cicely Tyson turned up in Diary of a Mad Black Woman, and was joined by Maya Angelou in the following year’s Madea’s Family Reunion. Earlier this year in Madea Goes to Jail we got to reunite with The Cosby Show’s Rudy, Keshia Knight Pulliam. I Can Do Bad grafts a character into the plot played by Gladys Knight, who actually does pretty well at acting, as does Mary J. Blige, although both are really in the mix to sing, and stop the show whenever they do so.
One does not seek subtlety in chitlin' circuit theatre any more than one would have in episodes of The Jeffersons. (Or Perry’s television shows: House of Payne and Meet the Browns operate on a level that makes How I Met Your Mother look like Ibsen.) The Perry movies rein it in a bit--Perry seems to have learned that direct translation of some of the broader stage hijinks, such as Madea's goofy adding machine routine totting up how much alimony her granddaughter’s straying husband will owe in Diary of a Mad Black Woman, come off clumsily amidst the realism of film.
Yet still, the movies retain an element of the cartoon. The womanizers are paint-by-numbers villains out of nineteenth-century melodrama. The one in I Can Do Bad is an unrepentant philanderer, anti-Latino, hates kids though he has four and tries to rape the lead character’s niece. Talk about Oscars--hats off to the actors who manage to make these characters look even halfway plausible without the distancing effect of the stage (in I Can Do Bad, Brian White labors valiantly with the task).
Or, Perry's make-up and costume as Madea in the films is only a touch more realistic than it is on stage. There is no hard-core three-hours-in-the-chair prosthetic work of the kind that made Eddie Murphy’s The Nutty Professor movies more awesome, in the literal sense, than most gave them credit for. As such, even on film we are to take Madea not as a real person but as Tyler Perry in drag, which is a kind of in-joke in itself, but weird when s/he is interacting with achingly real characters such as sobbing crack addicts. Lurches in tone in general come with the territory. One minute Madea is threatening to beat someone up (and sometimes kind of doing it), then the next minute Maya Angelou is intoning a noble oration at a picnic calling on young people to help save their communities, complete with portentous long shots and swelling scorage.
You just have to be there to get how this works on any level. Nevertheless, Perry's prominence is part of a tipping point in the race debate. For one, as of this series, which will continue indefinitely and yield bounteous box sets, the old plaint that there are too few positive images of black people in the media is officially obsolete. About twice a year one of these movies comes out, with millions nationwide flocking to stories about perfectly middle-class black people and giving warm, churchy lessons besides.
Yet, no one could say that the films whitewash reality a la The Cosby Show: there are plenty of substance abusers, poor people and neglected children in them as well, and Madea lives in a neighborhood on the tatty side--no young person would dismiss the Perry movies as corny or fake. Indeed, a generation is growing up watching them repeatedly on DVD and will be quoting from them as adults as people my age do with the House Party movies and Purple Rain. They are a new wing of the black pop reality, as much a part of the cultural scene as hip hop.
The message they preach is as serious as Cosby’s, but while Cosby is too grouchy in his presentation to reach the unconverted, the message is more effective from a woman ("woman"?), filtered through the warmth of the maternal rather than the admonishment of the paternal. Black Americans, at least of a certain demographic, tend to talk a lot during movies. Every time I have caught a Perry movie in the theatre, that chatter has vanished during the Good Advice climax scenes--people get it.
Once when I was at a barbershop, behind me in the women’s half of the shop a plus-sized twenty-something black woman was sounding off to her friends on life, love, and dieting, sounding quite a bit like you-know-who. And wouldn’t you know, one of her friends said "Now you’re sounding like Madea!" Hallelujah.
Madea is such a godsend that a part of me entertains a fantasy. If Perry wants to put his money where his mouth is on advice like "There come a time and place when you'll have a say and you can change things," then if Barack Obama comes a-cropper the way some are beginning to suppose he might, how about Madea for President?