|By Fred Topel
In Theaters Feb 24
Last year, Tyler Perry’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman seemed to come out of nowhere, taking the number one box office slot. Who was this man and how did he overpower Will Smith and Keanu Reeves? Well, it came as no surprise to Perry, who has been cultivating an audience on the theater circuit for the past eight years.
“I wasn't surprised, I was thankful,” he said. “Being on tour all over the country, you see all of these people and they say, 'We're going, Tyler. We're going to support you. We're going to support you.' And then they go. So I was grateful. I knew they were there, but to have them go was a whole nother thing. I was grateful. I was so thankful to God for that to happen.”
Perry’s plays feature the character Madea, a 60-year-old grandmother who Perry himself plays. Her comedic antics permeate stories about more serious subject matters like divorce, or in the case of Family Reunion, spousal abuse and child molestation. If that doesn’t sound so funny, don’t worry. It’s not supposed to be laugh a minute.
“I write from the aspect of complete life. In life, we go through moments where we're in very serious moments one minute and then we're in very dramatic moments the next. And I know that this works, because I'm on stage with 30,000 people every week and I do it every week. We go into one serious moment, one, and then we're laughing the next and it helps to talk about these kinds of subjects.”
Right now, Perry has a monopoly on this audience because despite the success of Diary, Hollywood is not clamoring to satisfy the theater crowd. “I think somebody should really do an in-depth story on this audience, because it is a huge, huge audience of just hard-working people who have supported for years the genre of theater that I do and they go to movies and they support movies. But I think the main reason there is so much support of it is because of the subject matter. People want to see positive messages or things that leave you feeling better, rather than leaving you heavy and in dark places.”
Even though Madea’s Family Reunion goes to some of the darkest places people can endure, Madea ultimately helps her granddaughters overcome them. This also makes it more real. “In one family, you can go through all of those things and I know several families personally that every one of those things are represented. When you talk about a family reunion, you talk about the issues of family and that's what I wanted to do when I was writing, just go through each character's situation. What is going on in all of these people's lives and the family?”
If critics still don’t get it, Perry is not surprised. “I don't know if it's necessarily about critics or just people in general. There's such a disconnect in this country. Everybody has their own life and their own world and everybody's in their own compartment and nobody's crossing or peeking to see what's over on the other side or in the other areas. I think the main reason that people don't get it is because they don't understand what this character represents, this Madea character represents, what these movies or shows or plays of mine represent. I'm so used to the mediocre reviews or the terrible reviews, when I see a good one - which I don't read or pay attention to - when I hear about it, I'm really surprised, because I expect people not to get it, I really do.”
For those of us lumped into that category, Perry explains what Madea represents. “Madea is a character who was around on every corner 20, 30 years ago. Now she's extinct, especially in the African-American family, even though a lot of people can relate to her. No matter what race, you know somebody like this character, I truly believe that. But what she represents was the protection of the family. If it takes a village to raise a child, then she was the head of the village, back in the day. But now grandmothers are much younger.”
Arriving in theaters only a year after Diary, Madea’s Family Reunion was not the product of Diary’s success. It was in the works before Diary’s opening weekend. Even though Perry is now a national celebrity, he refuses to buy into the hype.
“You can be a huge star among African-American people and the rest of the world never even know who you are, but they had prepared me for a lot of this. This was six years of [work]. There are some cities even before the movie where I couldn't walk down the street without being mobbed for autographs and going to the mall was difficult and eating dinner was difficult, so having all of those things happen has prepared me for this walk I'm on now.”
Perry still performs his plays, but he notices a more multi-cultural audience in attendance since his first movie opened. “We're still at capacity. What has changed is the dynamic of the audience. I'm seeing more non-black people represented in the audience. I can see it from the stage. It's really amazing, since the movie's been out I can look out in the audience and see 30 percent of people who are not black and that's pretty amazing, especially in a lot of Southern cities.”
This is just the natural evolution of things as Perry intended. “Even from Day One, I said, 'This is universal. This stuff is universal. Everyone can relate to love, hurt, pain, learning how to forgive, needing to get over, needing the power of God in their life.' No matter what your race, you can relate to these things and I've always said that and I tried to stay true to where I was with that. I've always felt that if people ever gave it a chance who weren't black, that they would find that and that's what I'm seeing.”
Madea’s Family Reunion opens February 24.