It's easy to understand why critics and certain audiences don't "get" Tyler Perry - he's not speaking to them. His is a demographic devoted to family, faith, and the foibles derived from both. He comes from a background that understands the urban experience, offering insights that even the most studied playwright can't duplicate. Sure, his films have seemed flimsy, floating along on clear cut caricature and the most simplistic of storylines. Yet when placed before a crowd of like-minded theater patrons, each seat filled with someone who's anxious to see what Perry is preaching this time, the experience becomes electric. It's obvious in every minute of the seven plays presented in this box set collection from Lionsgate. Nothing more than the original DVD releases repackaged in a single set-up, we get nearly 16 hours of Perry at his best. It's truly an eye (and heart) opening exercise.
Though he's not quite the Neil Simon of sermonizing, Tyler Perry's perfunctory passion plays are a great deal of idiosyncratic fun. While they tend to be formulaic and forced, they never let the viewer down - either in entertainment value or earnestness. His actors always give their all, and when he's part of the production (either out of drag or as classic character Mabel "Madea" Simmons), Perry is the perfect Jesus jester. He knows his audience, knows their concerns and their inner turmoil. He tests their faith and their need to believe by giving them plenty of "what if" scenarios to contemplate. In the end, a good dose of the Bible, and/or Madea's backhand, settle the score. Some may complain about the old school remedies applied, but over the course of these seven sensational works, the power of Ten Commandment basics really carry the day. Looking at each one individually provides even more insight, starting with his original Madea showcase:
I Can Do Bad All By Myself (2000) (Score: ****)
Plot: When Mabel "Madea" Simmons is taken ill, her family rallies around her. Living with her are Vianne, her divorced granddaughter; Bobby, a young man fresh out of prison, and her great granddaughter, the child of Madea's other granddaughter Maylee. Soon, visitors start arriving, including Cora, Madea's oldest daughter, and the M.I.A. Maylee, who has brought along her fiancé--Anthony, Vianne's ex. Next-door neighbor Mr. Brown is always stopping by to snoop as well as celebrate his faith. Tensions erupt between the sisters as each one deals with her own individual issues. It will take a few strong words from that wise (and somewhat wicked) elder to bring peace, love, and a sense of harmony to a family.
I Can Do Bad All By Myself is indeed the first Madea show ever created by Tyler Perry. It's the first play ever to feature the pot-smoking, gun-toting, 68-year-old maverick, and you can definitely tell. Not in a bad way - Perry seems almost incapable of not pleasing an audience with his preaching and pratfalls. No, the difference between I Can Do Bad All By Myself and later efforts is that our elderly scene-stealing shrew is not quite a star yet. Perry is yet to understand her power as a voice of ghetto glam and realistic reason. As a result, Madea is just a supporting player here, not the front-and-center catalyst of everything that will appear in future shows. Indeed, I Can Do Bad All By Myself is far more dramatic and emotional than Perry's other plays, since the interfamilial struggles are the main thrust of the narrative.
Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2001) (Score: ***1/2)
Plot: Helen and Charles McCarter are an affluent African American couple living the good life on the outskirts of the big city. Their huge mansion loaded with material goods and their marriage as (seemingly) strong as ever, the couple prepares to celebrate their 18th wedding anniversary. Unfortunately, Charles has a less than practical present - he wants a divorce. Even worse, he intends to marry Helen's best friend. Devastated, the jilted wife goes home to her family and mad matriarch Madea to help her out. Oddly enough, a strange twist of fate will bring the pair back together - if only to test Helen's resolve.
As the play that gave Perry his first taste of massive mainstream success (the film adaptation was one of 2005's sleeper surprises) and put his name on the map, Diary of a Mad Black Woman is strangely unsatisfying. Perhaps it's the differing narrative dynamic at play, or the backwards resemblance to films like Waiting to Exhale, but the issues between Helen and Charles are so ingrained, and yet handled so superficially (it's time for girl power, y'all) that we wonder why our heroine hadn't thought of such resolutions before. There's a tad too much payback here - unlike future plays which will use revenge as part of, not the entire reason for, the denouement. The acting is excellent (Perry never puts on a shoddy production, performance wise) and the songs are solid. It's just too bad the story is so scattered and slight.
Madea's Family Reunion (2002) (Score: ****1/2)
Plot: Once again, it's time for the Simmons family to get together. But this is no normal reunion. With one relative being buried and another getting married, Grandma Mabel "Madea" Simmons' house is becoming a second home for the odd assortment of kin. Cora has her hands full raising two daughters. It is Lisa who is walking down the aisle, but Tina's the bigger problem. Vickie is a successful college professor whose busy life seems antithetical to any interpersonal relationships. Jackie, lives with out-of-work husband Kevin. And next door are the nosy Browns. As the family waits to meet Lisa's new man, old wounds are uncovered and secrets are revealed as the matriarch of the clan consistently reminds everyone who's boss.
To gain the proper insight into this, or any of the other productions offered, you've got to understand Tyler Perry's past. Reading the information contained in his Web site bio, you get the impression of a troubled young man, led to a calling by the Lord. He merely chose the pen and not the pulpit. Yet black religious culture has a long tradition of the sanctified showcase, a kind of part play, part prayer. Alcoholism, infidelity, drugs, and youthful defiance are drenched in heavy doses of the Good Book, the entire theater is transformed into a kind of entertainment temple. As a race closely tied to spirituality, African-Americans in particular embrace this form of stage evangelism. It gives visual manifestation for many of their own struggles, as well as an equal indication of the inner strength they call upon to deal with them. And it's all done with deep pride and intense passion. These are terms that perfectly define the entertainment value of this riotous reunion.
Madea's Class Reunion (2003) (Score: ****)
Plot: As a local hotel prepares to host the 50-year class reunion for the students of Booker T. Washington High School, things are not going well for the staff. The young-gun female manager is a stressed-out mess. There's her miserable personal life, one of the maids is getting up in years, and desk clerk, Cora Simmons, is more interested in saving souls than checking in customers. But the uptight miss ain't seen nothing until Cora's momma, the incomparable Mabel "Madea" Simmons shows up. She, along with that no-good neighbor Mr. Brown, are part of the graduating class, and they're guaranteed to tear up this hotel. Of course, other secrets are discovered and personal problems revealed.
Continuing to concentrate on the trials and tribulations of the modern black experience in America, Tyler Perry's Madea's Class Reunion is not the religious Animal House parody you think it will be. The title promises a real romp through the urban educational experience with everyone's favorite gonzo grandma. As he has in almost all his plays, Perry has hit upon a sensational and solid character in his drag-act antics as Mabel "Madea" Simmons. He uses the brash battleaxe as guide through the problems of people of color, no matter the class, no matter the level of opportunity. Using the bumbling Brown family as the stupid but sincere "saved" element of his design, and the sloppy, scattered Simmons clan as the brood unbound, he dips through a veritable whys-why of contemporary ills - divorce, death, drugs, infidelity, and immorality - in preparation for his God, family, and faith propaganda. The result is as revelatory as rib tickling.
Why Did I Get Married? (2004) (Score: ****)
Plot: As they have for the last six years, the members of Poppy's close-knit family have traveled to a cabin in the woods for an annual marriage retreat. There, under the auspices of the late, great Miss Essie, the couples would discuss their troubles and strive to strengthen their vows. With her passing, Poppy has to go it alone. Not to worry, though; he has his devout daughter-in-law Diana by his side. Along with her supportive husband Terry, they have a strong bond, forged in God and tied with trust. The same can't be said for the rest of the clan. Sure enough, within moments of coming together, truths are revealed and unions are undone.
Minus Madea, and focusing on only one major social issue - marriage and infidelity - Why Did I Get Married? is one of Tyler Perry's atypical stage plays. Without his participation (the talented man is still responsible for the words, the direction, and the show's Gospel-inspired music) and the limited scope of the storyline, we finally get to witness Perry purposefully hemmed in. Why Did I Get Married? actually strives to be a legitimate drama. It doesn't go for easy laughs or outright religious ranting. Instead, we are supposed to get to know and sympathize with these characters, realizing that some are headed down incredibly rocky matrimonial roads in the next 120 minutes. Like an inner city Company, with married and single folk riffing on romance and love - as well as commitment and fidelity - the end result is something strange. We know that Perry will follow the formulas he's undeniably hinting at, yet we enjoy being manipulated for the sake of the story. In essence, we know every plot point before it arrives and celebrate it shamelessly once it drops.
Meet the Browns (2004) (Score: ****)
Plot: When 107-year-old "Pops" Brown dies, the rest of the clan gather together for the funeral. Caregivers L.B. and Sarah are left attending to the funeral arrangements. Luckily, they have a well-off divorced daughter, Mil-lay, to help out. Other brother Leroy has brought along his daughter, Cora, to meet and greet her kinfolk. He has just recently discovered his connection to his next-door neighbor, Mabel "Madea" Simmons. Sister Vera, a heavy drinker, comes along with her son (the doctor) and daughter-in-law. Naturally, when they all get together, family secrets are spilled and old emotions bubble to the surface.
The best way to look at Meet the Browns is like a spin-off, a Good Times to the rest of Tyler Perry's All in the Family-like pro-church classics. Working with a bigger, more expansive canvas this time around, Perry provides some superb insights into the black experience. L.B. and Sarah are seen as simple, proud, and underprivileged, but they never let that fact detract from their good nature and passionate faith. Most of the Brown children are successful, and Perry makes sure to point out that, with financial opportunities and security, comes a great deal of personal sacrifice and issues just as compelling as poverty. Oddly, this play doesn't contain a lot of the stereotyping associated with Perry's work. Without Madea around to provide such pigeonholing, there is much more of an authentic, realistic feel. Don't be mistaken, though. As with all his production, Perry is presenting his own version of The Word spiked with wit. And since these are go-for-broke theatrical experiences masquerading as meaningful, there's a lot more hullabaloo than heartache.
Madea Goes to Jail (2005) (Score: ****1/2)
Plot: The police have finally captured Mabel "Madea" Simmons and it couldn't have come at a worse time. Nephew Sunny is stuck in a loveless marriage, his trifling wife Vanessa treating him terribly. As part of her probation, Madea is required to take in troubled foster child Toni, whose lack of discipline and disrespectful attitude puts her instantly at odds with the manic matriarch. Luckily, Madea's next-door neighbor and best friend Ella is around with a good word and a kind heart. Sunny and Vanessa are growing apart, Toni is angry at her inmate mother Katie, and Toni's biological father, a perverted pimp named Pete, wants to induct his daughter into the foul "family business."
For anyone who ever doubted it, Madea Goes to Jail makes it very clear that Tyler Perry is a true talent. People can criticize his decision to take the stagy, talky Gospel plays of the last five decades and reconfigure them for a contemporary African American audience. They can also argue about his devotion to cause vs. his ever-increasing fame and fortune. But when he takes the stage, dressed as everyone's favorite battleaxe, he is the king of comedy - and she's the matriarch of mirth. Realizing, rightfully so, that his continued success rests firmly on the sagging chest of his demented drag characterization, Madea Goes to Jail centers almost exclusively around the irritable icon and her increasingly dysfunctional diatribes. Instead of being an inflated soap opera where plot points pile up, percolate, and then explode, Perry has created the near-perfect outlet for his sacrosanct stand-up act. The narrative is no longer the driving force behind the show. Madea and her sensational set-piece speeches are what make this experience.
In general, there a few things one has to remember before heading into Tyler Perry's stage work. First, these are LONG productions - two to two and a half hours in some cases. They are loaded with powerful Gospel tinged soul numbers, cast breaking out into song in pure musical mode. When Madea is present, adlibbing is almost constant. You are guaranteed to hear rap lyrics riffed on, pop icon burst, and Oprah Winfrey's work in The Color Purple endlessly referenced. Unlike the films, the religious themes are front and center, unapologetically Christian and charismatic in their message. Oddly enough, they fit perfectly into the plays, since Perry paces things just right, readying the crowd for the potency and presence of The Word. Even for those who don't enjoy dogmatic themes in their entertainment, Perry's efforts seem solid. They aren't overdone, and always come with a healthy dose of laughter.
Even though these are all videotaped performances, the 1.33:1 full-frame image is sharp and clear. Obviously helmed by professionals who understand camera angles, framing, and composition, the transfer treats us, the home theater crowd, to a view the live audience could only have hoped for. The older the show, the more potential for analog issues like bleeding, flaring, and ghosting. Still, as mementos of some stellar stage work, these filmed plays are excellent.
Equally important is the translation of the music and, it has to be said, it is near perfect. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo soars with Gospel greatness. While the songs do have their limits (no one claimed Perry was the Smokey Robinson of spirituals), the performers deliver them with so much bravado that you forgive their failings. Of course, the one main issue that almost all these plays have is a lack of audience participation. Whoever handled the editing of this material minimizes the post-song applause and responses, always fading out just as the final note in played. These performers are exceptional and really earn their praise. We listeners at home should be able to hear it as well.
Each DVD has slightly differing added content. The best way to deal with this material is to discuss each disc separately. We start with:
I Can Do Bad All By Myself
We are treated to a "new" introduction from Perry, which is about 10 seconds in length. The DVD commentary culls a few specific scenes over which Perry provides minimal insight. Aside from the trailers and photo gallery, the best extra element here is the 40 minutes of "bonus footage" which consists of Perry discussing the production troubles, talking to disappointed audience members, signing autographs, and answering questions from fans. This is an amazingly insightful compendium. We get to see Perry outside the show-business setting as he walks us through a typical day, and even discusses his love life--if ever so briefly. The most interesting bit may be the anti-Cribs style stroll through his new home. Perry is humble about the massive estate his success has bought him, and the house is very impressive.
Diary of a Mad Black Woman
Similar to I Can Do Bad All By Myself, we are treated to Perry intro, a DVD commentary on a few specific scenes, some trailers and a photo gallery.
Madea's Family Reunion
Again, all we have here are a Perry intro, a DVD commentary on a few specific scenes, some trailers and a photo gallery.
Madea's Class Reunion
Add to the other things mentioned before a Bloopers and Outtakes featurette containing 20 minutes of onstage mistakes and general cutting up.
Why Did I Get Married?
Finally, something different. As for extras, we get a 30-minute peek behind-the-scenes, with lots of interviews and rehearsal footage, and something called "Tyler Perry introduces Chandra Currelley: Love Songs." Set inside a club, Perry introduces Ms. Currelley (who was featured in the film version of Madea's Family Reunion) and lets her perform a few songs from her CD. They are just snippets though, not full numbers. Along with a collection of trailers for other Perry titles, this is a decent digital presentation.
Meet the Browns
Add to the other things mentioned before a Bloopers and Outtakes featurette containing 20 minutes of onstage mistakes and general cutting up.
Madea Goes to Jail
As for extras, we are treated to a behind-the-scenes featurette (consisting of Perry and the players mugging and ministering for the camera), a selection of bloopers (humorous, if not flat-out hilarious), and something called "The Magic of Madea/The Making of Madea Goes to Jail." It purports to show how Perry prepares each Madea production, from costuming to road crew. What we see instead is that this once homeless actor is now an entertainment titan, with a growing list of employees, commitments, and headaches to contend with.
Tyler Perry is truly an acquired taste. Audiences who believe themselves too sophisticated or contemporary to let Bible thumping, child beating, and spousal abuse ruin their night at the theater just don't understand the power in such prostylitizing. For all his dressed in drag dopiness, for the reliance on routine melodrama as a source of narrative nuance, for his almost stereotypes and non-PC racial profiling, Perry can be criticized. But after two hours of laughter, song, tears, and joy, it's hard to completely demean his methods. If you're in the mood for some good old fashioned religion laced with just a small smattering of modern satire, the plays of Tyler Perry fit the bill perfectly. This dense DVD box set easily earns a Highly Recommended rating, with one minor caveat - if you think you're too urbane and refined to enjoy such church going glorification, you probably are. Perry is intentionally speaking to those tuned into his particular ethical wavelength. Since you can't defeat him, you might as well join him. You'll be glad you did.
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