Tyler Perry is a southern boy, so it’s not in him to pass by me without speaking, even if he is wearing a dress. “I never introduce myself as Madea,” he tells me as he shakes my hand, wearing the full grandma getup: the dress, gray wig and double-barreled pocketbook. He knows it’s a jarring moment. I mean, really: Nobody’s nana is six and a half feet tall with an Adam’s apple, and as handsome as this 36-year-old man. But on the Atlanta set of Madea’s Family Reunion, it’s showtime and a brotha’s gotta do what a brotha’s gotta do.
It’s hard to believe that little more than a decade ago Perry was still casting about for a career. He hawked cars as a salesman and hounded people as a bill collector. Then one day he caught an episode of Oprah that championed the power of writing down one’s story. The idea inspired him to keep a journal and come to terms with his painful past: He’d been abused as a child. His first play, I Know I’ve Been Changed, dealt with how to heal from emotional wounds and forgive the people who inflicted them.
“Once a bad thing has happened to you, you can be completely ashamed of it and it can destroy you, or you can take the power out of it by using it as a teaching tool to help others,” Perry explains to me over lunch a month after I meet him. Clearly he has turned personal tragedy into a positive. So far Perry has produced ten popular plays—including two he adapted from Reverend T.D. Jakes’s works—that have raked in about $100 million.
But success didn’t rush up and bear-hug Perry. In fact, his first foray into theater bombed, leaving him with no savings and no alternative but to sleep in his car. “Can you imagine a six-foot-five man sleeping in a Geo Metro?” he jokes.
Undeterred, he kept on writing, eventually creating the unforgettable Madea. The audiences—and money—have been pouring in ever since.
Perry now writes, directs and stars in films for the big screen, and his success may be a bigger surprise to him than to anyone. As a youngster growing up in New Orleans with two older sisters and a brother ten years his junior, he was surrounded by chaos. According to Perry, his father had a volatile temper. “I watched my father toss my mother around the room,” he recalls. “She always used to take it, until one day he went too far. For the first time my mother started fighting back, scratching and kicking. The verbal stuff continued for years, but he never, ever raised his hand to her again.” Perry, too, bore the brunt of his father’s rage, he says. His mother tried to push the two to bond, sometimes sending Tyler to work with his carpenter father. But breathing sawdust proved horrible for Perry, who battled asthma. “My father would be working on a roof and cussing me out, saying, ‘Give me that two-by-four, you stupid good-for-nothing…’ ” Sometimes the abuse got physical as well. “I remember when I was 17, I did something that ticked him off—something minor,” he says. “My father grabbed me, threw me to the floor, and stomped me.” Things were so bad at times, Perry says, that he had dark thoughts of killing his father—or himself—just to get some relief. “Those were really sad times,” he says. “There were times when I felt I wasn’t going to make it. It was nothing but the grace of God that helped me make it through.”
Although as a child Perry felt powerless to protect his mother, as an adult he has been able to use that pain in his work to help others. “When I write stories with a message that says, ‘You don’t have to take this; get out of that situation—there’s a better life,’ it’s as if that little boy in me is speaking, hoping my mother or somebody else’s mother is listening,” he explains. “I know I’m speaking to a lot of people who can’t afford therapy, who’ve never had therapy, and who see my plays and maybe ‘get it’ in some sense.”
Perry sees a lesson in everything he was exposed to growing up and uses it to inform his work. “My childhood gave me insight into women that’s very rare for a man,” he says. So did tagging along with his mom to spots like Lane Bryant and the beauty shop, where she’d take him to keep him out of harm’s way. Parked in a corner, he’d listen, unobserved, as the Black women in his neighborhood told all.
Smack-talking yet tender, Madea was culled from that tumultuous period in his life. The character is really a hybrid of his mother, Maxine, and his Aunt Mayola. “The nurturing part of Madea comes from my mother, who would open the doors of our home to you no matter who you were,” he recalls. “My aunt inspired the pistol-packing, the wig and the voice. She overpronounces her words and puts an r on everything to make it sound proper.” Madea represents a matriarchal figure many of us grew up with, one who says whatever is on her mind—and what everyone else is thinking but is too afraid to say. “People like her aren’t around much anymore,” Perry says. “She’s missed.”
Perry decided to play Madea rather than cast a woman in those big shoes, he says, because of the special perspective he brings. “Men watch women all the time. We sleep with you, we love you, we talk to you, we watch you shower,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s a Virgo thing, but I’m tuned in.”
Even so, before he played a woman for the first time about seven years ago, Perry admits sitting in his dressing room looking at the man in the dress in the mirror. “I was mortified,” he says. “I asked myself, What are you thinking?” Since then, he has learned to manage his apprehension and has come to value Madea as the big, bold, protective mother, godmother, aunt and grandma that many of us aren’t lucky enough to have. Maya Angelou, who plays an elder in Madea’s Family Reunion, gets it. “Tyler has something quite profound to say,” she explains. “His Madea is funny and sassy and so captures African-American women—the way we can talk to one another across status, age and generation.”
Perry’s many Madea spin-offs have grown into a lucrative franchise, with a brisk business in live stage plays, DVDs and other goodies for sale on his Web site. He owes much of his success to the loyalty of his fans, 600,000 of whom he sends chummy E-mails to with a single mouse click. In fact, it’s the devotion of his fans that helped him win the backing of a major movie studio, Lions Gate, which joined with BET in helping Perry bring Diary of a Mad Black Woman to the big screen. Lions Gate came on board again to distribute Madea’s Family Reunion, which hits theaters February 24. In addition to the new movie, the playwright has a book of musings from Madea, Don’t Make a Black Woman Take off Her Earrings (Riverhead Books), that’s coming in April, and somewhere in that swirl, he would like to find the time to write a one-woman show for Cicely Tyson, whom he greatly admires.
He wants to complement his professional success with a personal one: creating a family of his own. Being on the road with his plays and film work several months out of every year makes that goal a bit difficult right now. But Perry’s guessing he’ll be ready when he’s about 40. “I want to see this time of my life through first, because when I get to that part, it will become more important,” he says. “When you’ve been through what I have, you want to know where your kids are. I want to know they’re either with me or with their mama.”
If Perry needs examples of how to make a marriage endure, surprisingly, he has only to look at his parents. After 40-plus years of marriage, they are still together. “They’re doing all right now,” he says. “To see this humble, docile man, it’s hard to believe it’s the same person.” He and his father have also worked to heal their relationship. “For the longest time I was driven by fear—fear of ever having to return home to my father,” Perry says. “I was angry with him for years and years. But I had to forgive him. And when I did, I got this complete release. Instead of drawing from my anger, I have learned to draw from happiness and love, because when you do, life becomes so much better.”
The theme of forgiveness flows through every story Perry writes. He says he uses his writing to heal divisions—between young and old, men and women, rich and poor—and he believes that these stories can change lives: “It’s good to act as a bridge. And who knew that a man in a dress would be the one to do it?”
Pamela K. Johnson is the West Coast correspondent for Essence.
Credit: Kwaku Alston
Credit: Kwaku Alston
A family affair: Tyler Perry and his leading ladies (from left) Lynn Whitfield, Rochelle Aytes and Lisa Arrindell Anderson. Photographed January 15, 2006, in Los Angeles. For clothing details, see Where to Buy.