Playwright Priest Tyaire wants to be more than the next Tyler Perry

Courtland Milloy
Columnist May 13

Backstage at the Warner Theatre recently, playwright Priest Tyaire was explaining why he was not the “next Tyler Perry,” even though that’s how his publicist describes him.

“I have my own story, my own style,” Tyaire said.

Nevertheless, there are good reasons for the comparison. Tyaire admits he learned to write plays by “studying every Tyler Perry DVD.”

It seems to be working, too. Without benefit of reviews, except word of mouth, his play “Mrs. Independent” enjoyed sellout crowds during a four-day run in the District last weekend. The audience, which was predominantly black and female, left the theater seemingly invigorated despite the heaviness of the story: black men and women at each other’s throats.

I asked a trio of women — representing three generations — what they thought as they left the theater together. The oldest replied, “Fantastic, blew me away,” as the others nodded in agreement.

On Broadway, at the 1,058-seat Ethel Barrymore Theatre, audiences may be raving about Denzel Washington in the revival of the classic “A Raisin in the Sun.” But down here in D.C. on the “urban theater circuit,” formerly known as the “chitlin’ circuit,” gospel songstresses Shirley Murdock and Camille Forrest were blowing the roof off the Warner. And it seats 1,300.

“I write about things that have happened in my life and what I hear people talking about,” said Tyaire, 41, who worked as an electrician before starting to write plays. After his relationship with an accountant fell apart, he began to question why men have such trouble being with women who earn more money. Or was it the other way around?

Enter “Mrs. Independent,” a $250,000-a-year lawyer played by Robin Givens. Her motto: “Depend on no man.” Her husband, played by Tyaire, is a $40,000-a-year auto mechanic who believes that “the man is the head of the house.”

Sure, it’s a shopworn theme. But the pain is fresh, the wounded in constant need of a balm.

For African American women, who are more likely to marry within their own race than any other group, the pool of “marriageable black men” is pathetically small — especially if you’re using the criteria of highly educated and high-earning.

It is not uncommon to find accomplished women in relationships with men who might not even have a job. There’s a widening education gap — with black women now earning about 66 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 71 percent of master’s degrees and 65 percent of all doctorate degrees awarded to black people, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And in a city such as the District, where the unemployment rate for black men was nearly 17 percent in 2012, the social gulf between the two groups may seem insurmountable.

To make a successful play about such real-life drama, the audience must see light at the end of the tunnel. In a Perry or Tyaire show, the audience also gets to bring light into the tunnel with them.

When a conniving young man in “Mrs. Independent” decides to change his ways, he throws a designer jacket to the floor and declares that he no longer needs to wear fancy clothes.

“Amen,” someone in the audience shouted.

When he reaches into his pockets, throws a set of car keys on the floor and declares he no longer needs to drive a red Ferrari, another woman shouts, “Oh, no, don’t do that.”

The meaning of the scene had been interpreted with two shouts from the crowd: A man doesn’t have to be rich — but it wouldn’t hurt. As is often the case with such shows, the award for best actor would go to the audience.

When it comes to resolving the moral conflicts — letting that spiritual light shine at the end of the show — acting talent mattered far less than the actors’ ability to belt out a gospel-themed song. Here’s where the show excelled.

The audience especially appreciated the singing talent, including Christopher Williams, who had appeared in the 1991 movie “New Jack City”; Anthony Grant, former lead vocalist with the Grammy-nominated rhythm-and-blues group Az Yet; and Bria Evans, whose enormous talent belied her age, 14.

Carol Lolley, Trisha Grant and Priest Tyaire Jr., 15, also delivered fine performances.

Tyaire’s first play, which debuted in 2007, is called “Tears of a Teenage Mother.” It was a tribute to his mother and the struggles she endured as a 15-year-old parent. She died of cancer in 2006. The play sold out twice, and he has since written six more.

The urban-stage-play formula made Tyler Perry a billionaire, took him from being a cross-dressing, one-man Madea act to one of Hollywood’s highest-paid movie moguls.

Despite the similar styles, Tyaire still insists that he’s not trying to become “the next Tyler Perry.” But he probably wouldn’t complain if he did.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.

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