Tyler Perry, Sam Gilliam Feted on First Night of Congressional Black Caucus Gala

By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 24, 2009

Two giants of the nation's arts scene were honored Wednesday night in a ceremony hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus on the first evening of its annual gala.

Filmmaker Tyler Perry and pioneering painter Sam Gilliam were feted by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and the Congressional Black Caucus Spouses at a glittery event at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

The annual Black Caucus gala, at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, has become such a fixture in the nation's capital -- a four-day mixture of political muscle intertwined with the presence of media stars -- that many across the country set their fall calendars by it. The event brought thousands of elected officials and media personalities to the city.

The conference will also feature workshops, seminars, a job fair, massive networking, health forums, book signings and an array of social events.

Gilliam is a local abstract artist known for his color-field works -- imagine huge, draped paintings on swaying materials. And Perry is the mega-grossing film mogul whose success has surprised many in Hollywood.

It seemed a particularly poignant moment when Gilliam slowly approached the podium to receive his award. The imposing octogenarian was greeted warmly by applause. "Thank you," he said, "for allowing me to sit next to Tyler Perry." The laughter was loud.

Gilliam alluded to how he enjoyed meeting the young artists in attendance. "It's an interesting thing if you're the number seven in a family and they start saying you can't be an artist. That's the worst thing that can happen."

Perry also picked up on the theme of being in a family environment where artistry is discouraged. He said someone in his family tried to discourage him, but that he kept hearing "a God voice" that told him to persevere. "I think it is wonderful to be able to pass on the great things we receive in this country," he said.

"There's nothing you can't do," he offered to the young artists in the audience.

One of the hallmarks of the artistic-oriented gathering was to allow young artists to mingle with legends -- as Perry and Gilliam were called -- during the evening. "It's always a blessing to do this because what we try to do is bring young artists together with the wise artists," said Leslie Meek, wife of Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.). "Sam Gilliam just this evening was talking to a few of the young visual artists. He was telling them where to go to school, what they should study."

Few figures in American film history have had the commercial resonance that Perry has had in the black community. It was estimated that by this past summer, his films have grossed about $400 million worldwide. (Perry also has written numerous plays and has a television show, "House of Payne," which chronicles the comedic rumblings of a black family.) His formidable creation, Madea (played by Perry), who appears in many of his films, is a flinty and blunt-speaking woman who dispenses advice and near-sermons to friend and foe alike.

But Perry's films are not for everyone. They are not the kind of movies that elicit Oscar predictions. There are those detractors -- especially when it comes to Perry's plays -- who cite his oeuvre as a modern-day chitlin circuit. (The chitlin circuit consisted of a string of theatrical venues where blacks felt comfortable and accepted during the days of segregation.) Perry rarely holds advance screenings (for the media), instead choosing to bypass reviews that would normally appear on the day a movie is released. It is a widely held belief that such thinking is to forestall the arrows of debilitating criticism.

"To some people, Perry's films are a matter of highbrow and lowbrow," says Freda Scott Giles, associate professor of theater and African American studies at the University of Georgia. "He's found an audience that can feel comfortable about what they're seeing. It's an affirmation for his audience. In his comedies -- and in his TV series -- there's always a focus on placing trust in a higher power. There's often an abused woman who finds true love with a good Christian man."

Last fall, Perry opened the Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta. The complex, situated on 30 acres, is believed to be the first major studio owned and operated by a black man. "On the one hand," Giles says, "Perry has his Madea franchise. But I'm happy he's trying to develop other projects with more depth."

Just recently, Perry announced plans to direct and produce a movie based on Ntozake Shange's celebrated play "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf."

If Perry represents an artist who came of age after the modern civil rights struggle, Gilliam comes from the other end of the spectrum. He was born in 1933 and graduated from high school in Louisville -- where his family had relocated -- in 1951. Gilliam landed in Washington in 1962. He has cited Pablo Picasso, Frank Stella and Paul C?zanne among his influences, as well as Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

In the 1960s, Gilliam became known for his drape paintings -- huge works that hang from a ceiling. One piece involved the use of 250 gallons of paint and more than 16,000 square feet of materials. Gilliam's work -- featured in European as well as American galleries -- was described by one curator as blurring distinctions between painting, architecture and sculpture. Gilliam spent years teaching in Washington public schools, and also has taught at, among other places, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Maryland.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company