It's now more or less a given than the tide of Tyler Perry popularity has ebbed and is starting to slowly sink back into the fringes of the mainstream. His underserved demo still shows up in droves, but for the most part, the days of setting the cinema on fire with his Bible thumping comedies and middling melodramas has passed. Others have picked up on his God/Good vs. Evil shtick and are riding it all the way to a decent return on their investment. As for Perry, he still has the palpitating live audiences to bank on (literally), the masses eager to see their hero in any possible form - writer, director, and perhaps most enthusiastically, as drag dynamo Madea. In this always entertaining persona, Perry does some of his best preaching, be it for salvation from the Lord or for old school etiquette and respect. He'll even toss in a few '70s soul and/or R&B references to prove there was urban music before hip-hop and rap. Even if no one ever again shows up to his movies or tunes into his TV shows, Perry can always make a living putting on the wig and housedress that he's come to be identified with.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in his latest stage effort, Madea's Neighbors From Hell. Unlike previous plays by the multi-hyphenated talent, there is only one main storyline line. Perry has decided to take up the cause of children, or specifically in this case, abused and used foster kids. In the past, his productions have always had a kind of "minors should be seen and not heard" old school stratagem in his narrative, complete with respecting one's elders, learning good manners, and understanding that things were better "back" in the day. Now, we have confused pre-adolescents, Karen (Chelsea Reynolds), Tay (Kimani Jackson), and Shannon (Jaynma Brown) who are being exploited by a woman named Ruth (Rhonda Davis) for the cash she gets from the State for their care and protection. Naturally, Madea and Aunt Bam (Cassi Davis) discover this fact and report her to CPS, specifically do-nothing social worker Patti (Alexis Hollins) and her boss Clay (Wess Morgan).
From the very beginning, we know where this material is going. Even with all the wonderful musical padding and gospel scatting employed, it's a plot point eventuality that Madea will have a standoff with Ruth, putting her and the entire system in their place while pontificating on old school music and "it takes a village" viabilities. Getting there is half the battle with Madea's Neighbors from Hell, though the creator at least allows his villain a chance to be wicked without going into full bore moustache twirling mode. That being said, this is also the perfect vehicle for this new version of Perry's plays. Madea 2.0 has gone from back sassing battle axe to prescient spokesperson. She is literally the character that says what everyone, including the audience, is thinking. When the kids act up, she puts them in their place. When it looks like bureaucracy and cronyism will countermand common sense, Madea's got the punchline laced put down. Instead of morality tales, Perry is now merely moralizing...and, frankly, it's a lot of fun.
Indeed, for anyone who grew up in the era of actual parenting, Neighbors from Hell is a breath of retro air. Perry's main message has always been "firm...but with feeling." Now, it's "save these struggling adolescents before their undermine everything" - and he means EVERYTHING. You get the sense in his recent work that Perry is perturbed by a society which sees victimization as a means to a legitimate ends and entitlement as a status to strive for. Education, hard work, and God? Forget it. Madea, on the other hand, won't let it go. Instead, she argues - effectively, one might add - that going back to basics is also recognizing where you came from. As a middle aged man, Perry recognizes that during the '60s and '70s, the Civil Rights movement was still in its infancy, adjusting to wins while still suffering horrific defeats. Our current political clime argues that we haven't come all that far. Luckily, Perry understands what works in 2014, and it's his entire "get right or get gone" shtick. It's what makes Madea's Neighbors from Hell worthwhile.