Throw Away the Key

We don't like Madea Goes to Jail, but then that's not the point, is it?

Writer, director, producer and actor Tyler Perry wins the perfect attendance award. The plays and movies featuring his cross-dressing alter ego, Madea, have become runaway box-office hits with black women older than 35, raking in more than $155 million over the past several years. Three performances of his latest show, Madea Goes to Jail, sold out the Music Hall at Fair Park last weekend, with scalped and eBay-ed tickets for the alternately hilarious and painfully sappy play going for three times face value.

So why the perfect attendance accolade? Can't we give him a screenwriting award or a directing trophy? In fact, we can't. Because unlike actually producing well-made movies or composing believable dialogue or, hell, treating his audience like they have half a brain, Perry pretty much just showed up for black women over 35 when nobody else did. Perfect attendance.

Perry is at least a hero, if not a kind of filmmaking messiah. He's being worshipped as the Great Black Hope for an ignored, underserved black audience rabid for wholesome, uplifting films and plays that aren't about booty calls, gang wars or rappers. So far, two movies, Madea's Family Reunion and Diary of a Mad Black Woman, and eight plays have allowed Perry to build a thriving cult following. Thing is, the work just isn't all that awesome. Critics (this one included) see very little redeeming artistic value in the work, but audiences can't get enough. Just because Waterworld is the only movie ever made about a dude with webbed feet who sails a flooded planet doesn't mean fans of movies about dudes with webbed feet sailing flooded planets have to like it.

Madea--played by Tyler Perry, in a scene from the hit movie Madea's Family Reunion--knows how to connect with her audience.
Madea--played by Tyler Perry, in a scene from the hit movie Madea's Family Reunion--knows how to connect with her audience.

To say that the audience at last Saturday night's performance of Madea was overwhelmingly black would be an understatement. The only non-black people (that includes Asian, Mexican, Eskimo, whatever) I saw on the way in were the box office attendants, and on the way out, I counted five white heads. The venue seats 3,420. It's not that non-blacks wouldn't find Madeaentertaining, but unless you spend Sunday morning at a black church somewhere in the South, you just plain don't know the play exists.

With no massive marketing campaigns shoving the Perry formula down the collective white American throat during Grey's Anatomycommercial breaks, the Caucasian population has remained oblivious. Instead, Perry's plays have been passed along on bootleg DVDs from one black family or congregation to another during the past eight years, generating a buzz unheard even by industry execs who should, in theory, be paying attention to that kind of thing. But Madea's Family Reunion just spent two weeks at the top of the box office and, last year, Diary of a Mad Black Woman opened at number one. As Madea might say, it's high time white people "lurrrrrnnnt."

Last weekend, Perry's portrayal of the title character, a viciously honest grandmotherly figure with weighty, free-flying breasts and a pistol in her purse, was nothing short of brilliant onstage. Sure, it's funnier because it's a handsome 6-foot-5-inch guy in a dress, but it works. Perry's script for Madea Goes to Jail is a kind of soap opera cum Sunday morning service cum Marx Brothers running gag that has serious trouble deciding whether it wants the audience to be laughing, crying or turning over their eternal soul to the Lord God Almighty. When it's funny, it's funny. When it's not, the play is downright painful.

At the end of the first act, two incarcerated women speak to each other across the cellblock, reciting pandering, unabashedly obvious dialogue about religious conversion.

"You mean Jesus loves even me? Just the way I am?" asks the token godless woman. The response? "Jesus loves you. Just the way you are." Cue the oppressively maudlin music and wavering, melismatic vocals. Later on, a teenage foster child actually asks the prison chaplain, "Will you teach me how to pray?" The chaplain embarks on a step-by-step musical explanation that is so openly preachy it borders on being comical. It's the kind of thing you can only imagine do-gooder neighbor Ned Flanders from The Simpsons thinking is great dialogue.

Regardless, audiences seem to enjoy the sad-bastard parts just as much as the high-energy hilarity. Perry has no regard for the fourth wall, passing out Kleenex to gum-chewing audience members and hollering in Madea's Georgia drawl to latecomers entering the theater. If the mood strikes, Perry departs freely from his script in minutes-long monologues full of advice and admonitions for the audience that shift the performance from play to preaching.

"I feel like I'm talkin' to somebody in hurr!" Madea shouted last Saturday, mid-scene, with several other actors onstage waiting to deliver their lines. Never breaking character, Perry launched into a--somehow--truly funny tirade about abusive relationships. "If yo' man hit you five time Wednesday and three time Thursday," he yells, "that's not exactly an improvement in the relationship."

These are the moments when Perry shines, and it's also why Madea live is so much better than Madea on the big screen. Madea is an unpredictable woman. She carries a pistol in her handbag, for heaven's sake. The uncertainty of what Perry might reveal about his character before a live audience is thrilling. Onscreen, it's less obvious that Perry towers a full foot above his female co-stars, and the suspension of reality that prepares us psychologically to see a movie also makes us kind of accept Madea as a woman, not a man in drag.

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