At the Municipal Auditorium in Nashville last December, the Friday-night crowd locked into a call-and-response that was part church, part something else entirely. It was opening night for a touring musical called "Madea Goes to Jail," and the audience, late to arrive, had already taken a hectoring from the title character, a 6-foot-5 grandmother played by a man in a fat suit. "This show started at 8 o'clock, now sit the hell down," he scolded, before adding a mock double-take for tonight's crowd: "Even the white people are late." The show, which defies easy plot summary, involved child molestation, infidelity, gunplay, scripture, prayer and willful abuse of the fourth wall. "I know this is in the script because I wrote it, but I feel like I'm talking to someone in here," said the grandmother, breaking partly from character. "Life goes on."
"That's right," the crowd answered.
This affirmation has made the man in the dress, Tyler Perry, 36, a household name in black America, with little recognition from white audiences or the black theatrical establishment. His self-financed musicals, playing rented halls on what is often called the chitlin' circuit, have grossed $80 million to $100 million in the last seven years, by his account. "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," the movie adapted from one of the shows, surprised the industry last year by opening at No. 1 at the box office (eventually taking in more than $50 million), and again in June by selling 2.4 million DVDs in its first week. Its follow-up, "Madea's Family Reunion," opens Feb. 24. Perry is now shooting a television series for syndication and has a book coming out in April that earned him a $2 million advance.
In an entertainment industry most fascinated by young males, he has succeeded in the guise of an older woman and a Christian, with work that is anomalous in mainstream entertainment: church-driven, preachy, pro-parental discipline, anti-premarital sex and funny in a Southern manner that doesn't try to be sophisticated. "He knows something I don't think anyone told him, which is how to help black people laugh at ourselves without ridiculing ourselves," says Maya Angelou, who plays one of several matriarchs in the upcoming movie. "In West Africa there's a phrase, 'blow-bite-blow.' You blow on an area until it's partly anaesthetized, then bite, then blow again before they notice the pain. That's what Tyler Perry does. He's chocolate covering on spinach or collard greens."
Perry often refers to his work as "my brand," a self-contained network of movies, musicals, books, DVDs, programs and posters. After years on the touring circuit, he has a list of 500,000 fans who get an e-mail blast every time he comes to their town or has a new product to sell. This constituency, mostly churchgoing African-American women, is the backbone of Perry's brand. "African-American women are the most loyal fan base you'll ever have," he said, sitting in his suite at the Trump Hotel during a run at the Beacon Theater in New York. "You don't need to worry about eating for the rest of your life, because they will support you with everything they have. As long as you don't marry outside the race, you are in."
"Madea's Family Reunion," like all of his work, is a story of family abuse and forgiveness. Men -- it is almost always men -- do bad things to women and children, who find strength, and often vengeance, through their faith. The mode is a kind of African-American nostalgia for communities that do not exist, combined with maternal instruction to do better. In the new movie, a matriarch played by Cicely Tyson laments seeing what her family has come to: young men gambling and fighting, women "with no clothes on, gyrating, fornicating," amid other falls from grace. "What happened to us?" she asks them. "What happened to the pride and dignity and love and respect we had for each other?"
For Perry, the stories of fall and redemption begin with his own biography. Abused as a child and occasionally suicidal, he says, he started composing letters to himself after seeing Oprah Winfrey recommend it as a form of therapy. These letters became his first play, "I Know I've Been Changed," about two brothers and the mother who abused them.
Elisabeth Williams Omilami, who ran a black theater company in Atlanta, remembers Perry showing up in 1992 and asking for help putting on that first show. Omilami is the daughter of the late civil-rights leader Hosea Williams; she now runs a homeless organization in Atlanta and has a role in Perry's upcoming movie. "He didn't have anything," she said. "He was just barely making it from day to day." When their production drew an audience of about 30 people, Perry lost his investment of $12,000 and was unable to pay the cast. Twice he was evicted from his apartment because he couldn't pay the rent. But he was ambitious and a quick study, Omilami said, and knew he wanted to make plays for people who typically did not go to the theater. "The difference between Tyler and us is that he began to see the commercial side of it. He saw it as a business from the beginning. We saw it as a 'poor struggling actor' thing, where you go into the community and serve the homeless. He saw it as a business."
Perry's oldest sister, Yulanda Wilkins, 41, does not entirely share his characterization of their father as abusive. "That's a subject with me," she said. "'Cause to me, Tyler got into some stuff. Maybe daddy was too hard with him. Sometimes he whipped him pretty good. He whipped him with an outdoor cord before. But back then that wasn't considered child abuse. My dad, he could only go on what he knew, and that was what he knew. Dad said, 'You know that boy was bad. You know he got into stuff'."
Perry's parents did not respond to repeated phone messages seeking comment. In a statement, Perry said that while he "has forgiven his father and has a good relationship with his parents now, they choose to remain private and not talk to press."
His deliverance, in his work at least, has come through the straight-talking character of Madea, a composite of his mother and other relatives (the name is a Southern contraction of "mother dear"). Though she is less than holy -- she doesn't attend church because there's no smoking section, and she grows marijuana at home -- Madea taps an African-American tradition of maternal reverence: even the hardest gangsta rapper gives props to moms. "Everyone can recall someone like this," Perry said. "She's almost extinct, because grandmothers are getting younger. But when Jamie Foxx is on the Oscars talking about his grandmother saying 'I'll whip you' -- that is this woman. Everyone who's black in America, you know this person."
In the Nashville audience, Lytonia Smith, 39, who was seeing the show with her girlfriends, saw the people and situations onstage as reflections of her own family life. "These characters are real people," she said, adding that she used the shows' treatment of social issues like abuse to talk with her 14-year-old son. "There's heavy stuff, but there's heavy stuff in every family. I would say it's therapeutic. No matter what situation your family is going through, God is there."
Like Perry's plays, in which Madea breaks from the action to talk directly to the audience, the movies mix comic timing with an overall pace that seems to shift in and out of gear. Reviewing " Diary of a Mad Black Woman " last February, Roger Ebert complained that the mix of slapstick and melodrama produced a "writing and casting disaster" that felt like two movies fighting each other. "I've been reviewing movies for a long time," he wrote, "and I can't think of one that more dramatically shoots itself in the foot." In response, more than 2,000 readers wrote in, many calling him clueless or racist. Ebert, who said he had never gotten so much mail, wrote a rare reassessment the following week, affirming his criticisms but likening the movie to Bollywood productions, which throw together comedy, drama, singing and dancing in ever-shifting moods.
But to Perry's devotees, the films are brand extensions of the stage shows, which belong to a cultural tradition far from the movie industry, with its own rules and -- for a select few -- its own fabulous bounty. The first "gospel plays" toured the South in the 1910s and 1920s with a mixture of Christian revivalism, Negro spirituals and minstrel humor, drawing huge crowds of working people, to the dismay of Harlem Renaissance aesthetes like W.E.B. DuBois and Alain Locke. As they evolved into highly profitable touring shows like Shelly Garrett's "Beauty Shop" series and Perry's work, they have remained isolated from the black theater establishment. David Krasner, a Yale drama professor, said that in a decade of teaching the history of African-American theater, he has never had a student who has seen a gospel play. When this reporter interviewed cast members of "Madea's Family Reunion," most said they had never attended one of Perry's shows.
In a 1997 New Yorker essay called "The Chitlin Circuit," Henry Louis Gates Jr., wrote that a part of the appeal of shows like Perry's is that they create a "racially sequestered space" where African-Americans can laugh "uninhibitedly, whereas the presence of white folks would have engendered a familiar anxiety: Will they think that's what we're really like?" If a white producer mounted the same stereotypes of black life, Gates wrote, "every soul here would swap his or her finery for sandwich boards in order to picket it."
But Perry's success has begun to bring a white audience into this space. Last fall in New York, you saw only the occasional white half of an interracial couple, but by December in Nashville, the crowd was maybe 20 percent white. This audience, drawn in through the DVDs, presents a potentially complicated dynamic. White audiences are often blamed for the lurid sensationalism of black exploitation movies in the 1970s, and for the negative imagery in contemporary gangsta rap. "The difference between what I'm doing here versus what the black exploitation films did is that I'm giving people life lessons, things they can use in life," Perry said. "I don't look at my culture and who I am, or us as a people, and exploit us. I think what I do is find our issues and the things that we deal with, which are universal. It's not a derogatory thing at all."
For Pauline Samuels, who drove up to Nashville from Houston, it all worked as a kind of collective unburdening. "All our families are dysfunctional," she said. "People act like these things don't happen in their families, like incest, drug dealers, alcoholism, jail. It's taboo. He says it's OK to talk about it. It's easier to deal with it because there's humor there. It's not like a talk show, which you can just turn off."
For Perry, who created Madea after watching Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence don old-lady drag, the character has been both a bonanza and a dead end. His plan was to play Madea for one show, then return to male characters. "The bad thing is that I haven't been able to get out of it, because the audiences won't let it go." In May, he said, he intends to retire Madea and concentrate on other characters. "I'm sick of the wig, the makeup. Sometimes I'm sitting here getting dressed and I'm going, what are you doing? But it's worked. Now I call this my uniform. Everybody puts on their uniform and goes to work."
In the meantime, backstage, Perry still had his own Madea to deal with, in the person of his Aunt Pansy Campbell, 58, who stopped over from her home in Dover, Tenn. When I asked her what part of her was Madea, she dropped her voice to a stage whisper. "Carrying my gun," she said. "I ain't got it with me, but I would carry it back in the day, when he was growing up. I went to the school with it. But I'm kind of cooler as I get older."
Among family, Perry let down his guard, becoming, oddly enough, more like the strutting characters he plays onstage. They quickly got to playing family catch-up: which aunt got stuck in Angola State Penitentiary during Hurricane Katrina, which cousin was a grandmother at 34, which relative always came to Perry for money. "I don't want to enable her," Perry said. Like the family dramas, the line could have come from one of his plays. This is the reality the plays capture, as Yale's Krasner observes: a cycle of abuse, neglect, jail, music and jail. When the call came for cast and crew to gather for prayer, the cycle began again. Pansy found a tall, handsome man to find her a seat. She looked around to make sure that everyone noticed, and mugged like the woman they had all come to see.
"In my mind you're looking at the real Madea," she said. Half the women in the audience might say the same.