washingtonpost.com
Madea Goes To Town
Gun-Packing Grandma's 'Hoodspun Wisdom Comes From Her Creator's Heart

By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 24, 2006

Scene 1: Madea, a huge grandmother, bounces onto the stage, a tempest towering over other actors, instantly stealing the scene, the star of her own show.

In this play, Madea wears black cat-eye glasses, a pink housedress falling loosely over her huge breasts. She is in orthopedic hose, a gray wig, gigantic feet stuffed in fluffy tiger-print bedroom slippers, a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, which is painted with a touch of pink. Just enough to suggest she was once a stripper. The name was Delicious and that was a long time ago but she can still "drop it like it's hot," she says with a cackle.

Madea, the character created and performed by rags-to-riches playwright, composer and movie director Tyler Perry, is bigger than life, big enough to lean on, with her black purse, loaded with four pistols ready to defend her honor and the honor of any family member she thinks is being wronged.

Pow! She spews advice and wisdom, caring not a damn who gets in the way of the words. "I am six feet tall, 68 years old, 392 pounds. I can say whatever I want to say. And ain't nobody going to stop me. . . . This is my house, I can say anythink. I can say anythink I want to say in my house."

From this fictional house on theater stages -- and in a movie set to be released today, "Madea's Family Reunion," plus the book "Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings" due out in April -- Madea has taken on a life of her own. Emerging fully formed from the painful dust of Perry's childhood to speak to a whole generation of audiences.

Long before Madea made it to Hollywood, she traveled across the country, performing stage plays that reached underground and across class and tapped into the vein of pain pumping through black communities. Starring in morality tales, often about molestation, abuse, cheating husbands, cheating wives, mothers in jail, crack children producing crack babies, grandmothers raising grandchildren whose mothers went off and left them, abandoned children left to make sense of mothers in jail, daddies unknown.

Part gospel concert, part church, part stand-up comedy, part old school R&B jam sessions, part collective counseling, the plays often had happy endings in which the good get their reward and the evil get their due and the beautiful single black woman rides off into the sunset with a beautiful, good black man. The plays are ultimately about forgiveness.

In the play "Madea Goes to Jail," which came to Constitution Hall in January, Madea sinks on a sofa in her living room, and from that sofa-throne issues her edicts:

Dating and having sex will get you dinner and a movie, but holding out will get you diamonds and furs and Cadillacs and proposals. A man likes challenges. . . . You should consider yourself Mount Everest. Do you know how many men died trying to get to the top of Mount Everest? Keep the flags off of you!

Different scene, different play.

Actress: How can you tell when a man is cheating on you?

Madea: You think your man's cheating?

Woman: Yes, I do!

Madea: Well. [Pregnant pause.] That's how you can tell.

Laughter.

And this is not a laugh track.

And you are sitting there, cracking up, rewinding the funny scenes, playing the tapes of some of her seven plays and first movie over and over, because there is somebody in Madea you recognize instinctively. Like somebody in the family you might be embarrassed by at reunions, some great -- thrice removed -- aunt you thought twice about inviting to the wedding because you never knew how she just might ack.

If you don't know what ack is, you might not understand Madea.

Which leads to a few questions: Who is Madea? And why is Madea so insanely popular, so infectious, almost ubiquitous in the 'hood on T-shirts, on bootleg tapes of her plays, popular among old people and young? Why did the movie she starred in, "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" (based on Perry's play), soar at the box office last February, grossing $50 million and selling 2.4 million DVDs its first week in stores -- despite critics' panning it as "simplistic," "cornball" and "eye-rollingly terrible"?

Why is "Madea's Family Reunion," based on Perry's play of the same name, starring Perry, Blair Underwood, Lynn Whitfield, Maya Angelou and Cicely Tyson, so eagerly anticipated? It is set to open in 2,100 theaters, 600 more than her last movie, according to Tom Ortenberg, president of Lionsgate Theatrical Films, who said the company's confident that the film "will be an even bigger hit than 'Diary of a Mad Black Woman,' " adding that research screenings show the movie appeals to all races, men and women.

And why did Oprah, of all people, recently change her format to accommodate Madea (she was interviewed via satellite), who initially told Oprah no?

Who tells Oprah no? Madea.

Oprah says on air: "I saw for the first time the play 'Madea Goes to Jail' in Los Angeles. It was a transcendent experience. . . . It was what you want in theater. I laughed so hard . . . I had a laughing headache."

Madea, from her "living room" as she's interviewed, talks dieting with Oprah.

Oprah: I made a big mistake over the holidays. I allowed myself to eat bread, and I blew up.

Madea: You don't eat bread?

Oprah: No, I don't.

Madea: What kind of life is that, not eating bread? . . . I'm going to eat what I want to eat and I'm going to die whenever I die. If I'm walking down the street and I get hit by a bus and I'm skinny and they go to my funeral, ain't nobody going to sit there going she was soooo thin. They are going to say no, she dead. I'm going to eat as much as I want to eat and enjoy myself.

Big Momma of the 'Hood

Which brings us back to the question of who is Madea? Anybody who is in the 'hood, close to the 'hood, just left the 'hood or has relatives still living in the 'hood knows this woman: Madea, matriarch of the dysfunctional family. Madea is like the aunt, the grandmother, the great-grandmother who mixes up Bible verses, who prays with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth.

We pray to the God of Abraham [pause] Lincoln; the God of Mary [pause] J. Blige . . . the God of Shadrach, Meshach and a Billy Goat. God look down on the caller ID and see my name and be like, "I don't think so."

Madea is the grandmother who dresses in bright red for her sister's funeral, and says she's going to church only after the church "opens a smoking section." She is the godmother who gets high off weed 'cause she got glaucoma and is "a diabetical" because she got "that sugar."

Madea is that relative who dances the electric slide and who will love the good in you and tell you to your face about the bad in you or about that no-good man or no-good skank woman you married.

I was the only one at your wedding with a T-shirt saying, "Do not marry this man. He will break your heart." Big T-shirt and sign. But you married him anyway. Don't get mad at me because you married a dog.

Madea, born Mabel Simmons, is a derivative of "Mother Dear" or "Ma Dear," a term of endearment. Madea, not to be confused with Medea in Greek mythology.

The Pain That Made Madea

Before we find out who Madea really is and where she came from, we must first find out who Tyler Perry is and where he came from.

Perry, 36, is sitting in his dressing room at Constitution Hall. It's opening night and crowds are lining up outside. People say you can come to a Tyler Perry play every night and never see the same ending, because all that Madea preaching onstage is not necessarily part of the script. Inside, Perry has not yet transformed into Madea. He greets you with a warm hug, bending down as if it is custom. He is 6 feet 5. He sinks into a brown sofa. And you wonder: Is that a touch of shyness you see in his eyes? But you know better. Because this is a man who has done more than 250 shows each year for six years.

Two gray wigs sit on the dressing table. In minutes, Perry will pull on one of those wigs, then slip into the fat suit that hangs with the oversize breasts by the door. An artist will apply the Dermablend makeup, thick enough to cover his beard and transform him into Madea. He will not allow anyone besides those necessary to see this transformation. He is "embarrassed" in that dress, which has brought him so much fame and millions. "When the last zipper goes up and the wig goes on and there she is," Perry says, "I'm very uncomfortable in the costume. . . . You are sitting in a dress and a wig. . . . It's kind of hard to be a man up there when you are looking down at your breasts."

In the dressing room, you ask Perry about his childhood. And he says his childhood in New Orleans was full of pain, so much pain that he does not remember one happy moment until he was 28 years old, when he finally had a conversation with his father, a mean man, who cried and told Perry he loved him.

It is that kind of pain and the characters he witnessed as a child that seep into his subconscious so deep they come forth when he is writing his plays and movies. And they connect with a wider audience, many of whom write on message boards at his Web site that the plays have saved their very lives, given them reason to go on, reason to laugh, reason to forgive.

And as long as Tyler hears that, he will keep going despite the criticism he gets from some bourgeois blacks who say his plays have set the race back, calling them minstrel shows on the "chitlin circuit."

"There was a comment from a man who does a black theater festival who came to me and said, 'Until you elevate your theater, you won't be invited.' But I say, 'Who said this theater is better than my brand of theater? Who says this is legitimate and this is not?' " He remembers talking to August Wilson at a reception after seeing "Seven Guitars." Perry told Wilson what people said about Perry's plays. Wilson told him the plays were genuine theater.

And that was all Perry needed to go on.

"She has taken on a life of her own."

He continues: "A lot of people don't have money for therapy. . . . A lot of the stuff comes to me when I'm onstage. It keeps the show fresh. I can't do Broadway."

Perry was born in New Orleans in September 1969. You stop him. You don't know why but you ask him his zodiac sign. Maybe because so many of your friends told you to ask him what his sign is and whether he is married. Because a brother like this who writes plays in which the single black sister always rides off in the end with the fine black brother who reads her poetry must be special. You save that question for later. (He says he is not married. "There is a very, very special woman I love very much." Says they have been dating one year. "She completely inspires me on so many levels." But there is no plan for marriage anytime soon. "I'm so consumed with everything. Once I'm married, she and the kids will take priority.")

Now Perry is talking about his childhood.

"I was a disappointment to my father because I was sickly. I was allergic to everything, dust and mold. My room had to be cleaned. And I was always very tall for my body. The doctor used to say I was too big for my heart." His father didn't think he was his child, he says, so he beat him and he cursed him and he stomped on him and he called him every name in the book as Perry grew up in that shotgun house in New Orleans.

He stops, not wanting to retell the story he has told so many times about how his father was so mean that he bit off his brother-in-law's finger and spat it on the floor of a bar.

"Quincy Jones told me the statute of limitations runs out on childhood trauma," Perry says.

The older Perry grew, the worse the insults. "He threatened me. He would become physically abusive. Beating me with vacuum cleaner cords. Stomping on me."

Perry says his father was mean to his mother, too. "Sunday, she would wake me up and say let's go to church. Back then people didn't have counseling or therapy. It was God." Perry says he's still on good terms with his parents, who have come to see his plays. They have refused to talk to the press.

His mother tried to protect him. "To protect me, she took me everywhere. I knew more about Lane Bryant and Dark and Lovely. I didn't appreciate it then. My mother used to play cards in the projects till 2 or 3 in the morning." Later when he is writing, pulling for information, he will think about these scenes.

After high school, he worked as a waiter, bill collector, used- and new-car salesman. Perry followed one of his cousins to Atlanta, where Perry still lives. (Yes, that was his mansion in "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," the big, big house with the marble floors and the stone staircase, down which the cheating husband dragged the wife in her raspberry ball gown, down to the lonely U-Haul truck, which happened to be driven by a sensitive hunk.) Atlanta inspired him. "I saw black people, successful, articulate black people with companies. I thought I had hit the promised land." That was in 1991.

One day, Perry was watching Oprah when she said something about writing being a catharsis for pain. In 1992, he started writing letters to himself in an effort to release his childhood pain. A friend told Perry the letters sounded like a play.

Perry had no formal training in writing a script, character development, stage production, directing (which drives film and theater critics crazy). But he saved up $12,000 and used it all to open his play in 1992 at a community theater in Atlanta. He called it "I Know I've Been Changed," and based it on the struggles of adult survivors of child molestation. He wrote the music, designed the set, acted onstage. On opening night, only 30 people showed up. For six broke years, Perry kept scraping together his own money and putting on shows. For three months he was homeless, living in his car. "Broke and at times starving," he says, he held on to the faith that now infuses his plays and movies.

"I had so much belief that God had given me this to do. But having it fail, having it fail constantly. I'd sit at my desk and I know God was telling me go and do this show." When he finally felt it was time to quit producing plays, a voice told him to stage one more. That night an investor showed up.

And it would be easy to say the rest is history. But it is in the making. He says the play, "I Know I've Been Changed," went on to sell out. It moved to the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, where it sold 9,000 seats in two shows. He went on to tour in major cities: Washington, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Miami. T.D. Jakes asked him to help produce "Woman, Thou Art Loosed." He said the play, which opened in 1999, grossed more than $5 million in five months.

Perry shifted to lighter plays, still morality stories but with happy endings. In 2000, he introduced Madea in the play "I Can Do Bad All by Myself." Then came "Diary of a Mad Black Woman." Followed by "Family Reunion." And "Class Reunion." All starring Madea, selling out theaters across the country, selling more than $100 million in tickets. In 2001, Perry was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award for his role in "I Can Do Bad" during its stop here at the Warner Theatre.

Which goes back to the question of who is Madea -- really? Where did she come from and how is she formed?

"My first show character was Joe," Perry says. From 1992 to 1998, he played Joe, an old man with an eye for beautiful women and with flatulence issues, among other problems. Then he saw Eddie Murphy do the Nutty Professor character. "And I thought of who is the funniest person in my life." Mayola, his aunt. And his mother. "My mother is a milder version of Madea. Wisdom. My aunt is the funny one with the wig. My aunt carries the guns and the razors."

Perry does not mind that you speak of Madea as a real person. "We are two very different people," he says. But when Perry is onstage, Madea pushes him out of the way.

She is popular with people, he says, because "she is obnoxious and she says what they think. She hits a chord. She is not politically correct."

The Wit and Wisdom

In the Washington stop of "Tyler Perry's Madea Goes to Jail," Madea broke away from the script and gave the audience an old-fashioned lesson in love:

Pay attention to the voices in your head. If somebody say they love you, then everything they do has to line up with love. If somebody say they love you and do something crazy, and you tell them to stop, and they keep doing it, well, they don't love you.

Pay attention to that voice. Get by yourself so you can hear what God is trying to tell you. I will never understand people so in love with somebody they walk out and they want to kill themselves. You want to slit your wrists and they be at the club.

Laughter.

If a man is out working all day and come in smelling like Irish Spring, something is going on. . . . you ask your man for one thing. And if he gives it to you, he is genuine.

What is that one thing, someone from the audience yells.

I can't tell you, because what I am is conflicting with this dress .

Laughter.

I better get back to the script.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company