Passing the Chitlins

Tyler Perry hopes to take urban theater to a new level.

| May 15, 2002

"What had happened was my sister died on the same weekend that my granddaughter was suppose ta get married, so we had a funeral, a weddin', and a family reunion at the same time. Talk about savin' money!"

-- promotional material for Tyler Perry's Madea's Family Reunion

Two weekends ago, Spinning Into Butter, a savage comedy that sheds much light on the issue of racism in America, had to cancel its Sunday performance at the tiny Circuit Playhouse because nobody showed up to see it. Why is that? As near as anyone can figure, it's because the play is virtually unknown. It's not a big Broadway musical, and it hasn't been made into a major motion picture starring Julia Roberts. This is the reason why local theaters seldom produce newer, edgier work. If people don't know about a show, they stay away in droves.

That's the theory anyway. But that theory loses a lot of credibility when you look at the success of new urban theater. As you might imagine, "urban" is code for African-American, and "urban theater" is the politically correct way to describe what has been known since time immemorial as "the chitlin circuit." Nomenclature aside, regional theaters, shaken to their foundations by low attendance and an inability to attract a younger crowd, could learn a great deal from these mobile productions. Completely unknown musicals with vaguely exploitative titles like I Can Do Bad All By Myself and Diary of a Mad Black Woman tour from city to city, often selling out the area's largest venues. While many critics have savaged these shows for being predictable family affairs augmented with positively charged gospel music, they succeed where most modern drama fails: They play into and strengthen the sense of community within a specific group. They don't try to be all things to everybody, and, as a result, they have captured a loyal following that might never consider seeing A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

"[African-American people] don't go see Broadway shows, in general," says Tyler Perry, the author and star of Madea's Family Reunion, which is coming to The Orpheum May 16th-19th. "The stories and the way they are told are not interesting to us as a people for the most part. And the way we watch theater is also very different from our [white] counterparts. We're very involved, very boisterous. We talk back. We get involved in the show and that's okay. We're an emotional people and with good reason --coming from slavery and all the misery. I love having that one-on-one and that feedback."

Clearly, there is a radical disconnect between Perry's ethos and that of local playhouses where some company member invariably begs the audience to open all candy wrappers before the show in order to avoid making noise during the performance. While it's merely a question of courtesy, the result is ultimately funereal. "Black funerals and white funerals are very different too," Perry wryly points out, and the point is well taken.

Still, to pin the success of Perry's work entirely on the interactive relationship between audience and actors would be to slight the playwright and his creations. Perry's work has not only proved popular, it has been recognized in circles that have traditionally ignored urban theater entirely. He has received favorable reviews from a number of mainstream newspapers and was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award for his performance in I Can Do Bad All By Myself.

The Madea (a contraction of "mother dear") character, which Perry's new play revolves around, originated in his play I Can Do Bad All By Myself, and according to the author the audiences won't let her go. Just as Shakespeare wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor because of the popularity of Falstaff, Perry decided to build a whole new play around his most beloved creation.

"Reviews have compared my Madea character to Flip Wilson's Geraldine," Perry says, "but I feel she's a more urban version. I also hear comparisons to Redd Foxx with some of the other characters I've done. Those guys are legends and to be in the company of greatness is a wonderful thing."

Even more wonderful are the box-office receipts. While so many theaters struggle to make ends meet, Perry continues to pack the houses. By advertising on radio stations with large African-American followings as well as targeting urban television programming and building an extensive data base, Perry has cultivated a tremendous audience.

"I think a lot of people have no idea how truly successful these shows are," he says. "It's sad, but African-American people are still being ignored. We set a box-office record in The Orpheum theater the last time I was there, and we are still being ignored." But according to Perry, it's okay that this audience has been ignored for so very long. He's perfectly happy to step in and fill the gap.

"I'll take everything they want to give us," Perry says. "Even people who are tired of going to see what's been done on what has affectionately been called the 'chitlin circuit' realize that I'm doing something different. It's not the same old 'mama on the couch' show. It's a story with a plot and a twist and great singing and lights and sound, and people appreciate that."

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