It's about time to accept the fact that Tyler Perry is here to stay. His movies consistently make money, his TV shows dominate certain Superstations...heck, he even had to bail Oprah's ass out when her network threatened to go belly up. Many still scramble to call him a flash in the pan or out and out fad, but the truth is he is building a sizable fanbase that will support almost everything and/or anything he does, and with said legions growing year after year, he is poised to dominate the underserved African American demo for a long time to come...and why not. His work is consistently (insert your own word here - ours is "decent" or "watchable") with more than a couple coming dangerously close to actual mainstream entertainment. Such is the case with his play The HAVES and the HAVE NOTS (his oddball capitalization, not ours). With a strong central message about black father figures and the standard Perry melodrama, this tale of a poor family struggling through these tough economic times couldn't be more contemporary. It's also a sentimental and thoroughly entertaining slice of homespun TP hokum.
We meet the hard-up family of matriarch Grandma Hattie Mae (Patrice Lovely) as they prepare for the day. Teenage son Wallie (Jeffrey Lewis) has been out all night - presumably, up to no good - and is just getting in as his Momma, Rose (Kislyck Halsey) is getting up for work. She is a maid in the house of a rich man named Mr. Willis (Maurice Lauchner), working under a smart-alecky yet sympathetic butler named Floyd (Palmer Williams Jr.). Her husband, Frank (Tony Hightower) has been desperate to find work ever since his plan to flip houses was destroyed by the recent economic downturn. As a matter of fact, the bank is trying to foreclose on his current home. He used it to finance his failed endeavors. As luck would have it, Mr. Willis needs a new gardener and handyman and hires Frank to do the job. Of course, his much younger golddigger of a wife (Alexis Jones) sees the physically fit new servant and sizes up her chances of seducing him. When Floyd sees something he probably shouldn't have, everyone's faith (literally) is tested.
Since he starts from such a sincere place, since he gives us complex characters with strong Christian convictions that we can understand and get behind, Perry's The HAVES and the HAVE NOTS is often very powerful and profound. The self-contained cottage industry has frequently been accused of catering to the women in the audience by making all his male characters brawny buff eye candy, weak-willed dopes, or even worse, abusive, strident pigs. Here, all the guys are good ones. Mr. Willis is overweight, worried that no one will love him for himself (not his money) and is desperate to have a sincere soulmate. Similarly, Frank is a defeated yet proud black father who will not tolerate letting his specious son squander his talents (he's supposedly very, very smart) on a fiscal quick-fix like dealing drugs. Even Floyd, whose more or less included to add a Y chromosome to the abundant broad comedy, is not your typical valet. He's acerbic, confrontational, and often on point. It's telling that he mocks Mr. Willis openly to his face and the befuddled boss takes it in stride.
It's the women that are more worrisome this time around, though we've seen their type in other Perry productions. Of the three, Grandma Hattie Mae is the least concerning. Of sure, Ms. Lovely plays her as an over the top mugging mess, complete with references to a prostitution/stripper past and lots of physical shtick, but she's also a calming and loving presence in her troubled house. Her mid-show shout out to God, ala one of Perry's original gospel tinged songs, is indeed inspired. Then there is Rose, who talks a good game (she's saved, believes in herself and her man) and yet immediately starts jumping to the wrong conclusions about her spouse. For a while, we're afraid she will somehow transform into a sullen, one note shrew, but then Perry switches things up, giving her both rational and irrational motivations and reasons. Of course, every single TP stage show needs a hissable villain and Ms. Jones is it. While she may look fetching, her turn as the money grubbing Willis witch provides ample opportunity to ball up your fist and shake it at the TV screen.
Even Perry proves capable of change. He doesn't always swing for the rafters this time around. Instead, The HAVES and the HAVE NOTS is grounded in a realism that is frequently difficult to watch. Unless you're Mr. Willis and his 1% pals, we've all wanted to avoid a ringing phone, wonder where Peter is so we can rob him and pay Paul, and fret over financial failures that have little to do with us and more with a post-millennial mindset of corporate greed and "gimme!" This close knit clan is having a very difficult time, and while the play would have you believe that prayer answers everything, we also recognize the pitfalls that come with poverty. Luckily, Perry adds enough humor and halting wisdom to work us through the misery. Palmer Williams Jr. is excellent as the manly Madea substitute, cracking joke after joke at the expense of others and hitting the target almost every time. He's not as over the top as Lovely's Grandma Hattie Mae, but he's equally effective. Maybe even more so. In fact, for those who've followed Perry from the start (including yours truly - this is the 18th stage play and/or film of his I've reviewed), you can see a growing confidence and maturity. Sure, he's still playing to his people, but with The HAVES and The HAVE NOTS, said populace is growing beyond the base.