Perry, Tyler 1969–
Tyler Perry 1969–
Playwright, actor, director
Perhaps not as famous as America’s greatest playwrights, Tyler Perry has become known as the man who revitalized urban theater and gave new meaning to gospel theater. Emerging from the African-American experience, and perhaps sharing a characteristic comedic exuberance, urban theater and gospel theater are nevertheless separate genres. Unlike urban theater, gospel theater includes a distinct religious element, incorporating religiously-inspired characters into the narrative. Wearing all the hats—writing, producing, directing, and acting—Perry has been creating wildly popular plays that have repeatedly sold out in major cities around the United States. He has been nominated for several awards including the Helen Hayes award for outstanding lead actor and for four NAACP Theater Awards. At one time, three of his plays were touring the United States. While his plays often shock the audience because they address issues such as domestic violence and sexual abuse, his narrative method is side-splitting humor which places the disturbing themes in a universal context. All his plays have the same underlying message: Forgive through the power of God. Interestingly, audiences all over the country have regarded his shows as truly inspirational; some even describing Perry’s plays as a life-altering experience.
W.E.B. Du Bois declared that Black theater should have four components: it should be for us, by us, about us, and near us. While some critics asserted that Perry fulfills these requirements, others simply dismiss urban theater, including Perry’s work, as an unsophisticated art form which basically relies on stereotypes. Perry admitted to Ytasha L. Womack, writing for Essence, “Some of these plays give all of us a bad reputation.” Furthermore, gospel plays, as Toledo City Paper’s Brett Collins observed, mainly address a church-going—i.e. very specific—audience. “What distinguishes gospel plays from regular musicals,” Collins explained, “is the presence of ‘saved’ characters who spout scripture and sing God-centered songs. They usually contain at least a couple of buffoonish, stereotypical characters, which led to the genre being widely derided as ‘chitlin’ circuit theater.’” Since Perry has become a mainstay in the black theater circuit, American Theater magazine has replaced the term “chitlin circuit theater,” a generic description for Black theater, with the term “Urban Theater.”
Born Emmitt Perry, Jr. on September 13, 1969, in New Orleans, Perry has had a life that brings to mind a Hollywood screenplay about a man who, after great hardships, relies on his faith and attains wealth and fame. Named after his father, Perry was called “Junior” during his young life, a childhood that was filled with abuse. While Perry’s father provided materially for his family, he was the primary source of his son’s physical and emotional pain. The pain was so overwhelming that Perry attempted suicide as a young teenager. When he was sixteen, the young man, who hated to be called by his father’s name, changed his name to Tyler, a name which, years later, he found meant “builder of great things.”
At a Glance…
Born Emmitt Perry Jr. on September 13, 1969, in New Orleans, LA; son of Emmitt Perry Sr. Religion: Christian.
Career: Playwright and stage actor, 1998–; television screenwriter and producer, 2003–.
Address: Office —235 Peachtree Street, Suite 400, North Tower, Atlanta, GA 30303.
Although Perry was the “class clown” and loved to make people laugh, he was a very depressed and introspective boy, finding solace in writing and drawing. Failing to finish high school, he earned a GED and learned the carpentry trade. In an effort to heal deep emotional wounds, Perry began keeping a journal, an exercise that he learned about from watching one of Oprah Winfrey’s weekday talk shows. In his journal, Perry wrote himself a series of letters, finding that writing was extremely cathartic. More importantly, he found that he was extremely good at articulating his emotions. The collection of letters evolved into I Know I’ve Been Changed, his first gospel musical. The play, which addresses domestic violence and child abuse, described the particular ways in which emotional and physical trauma endured during childhood affects a person’s adulthood. The play introduced the idea of the extraordinary healing power of having faith in God. Perry explained to Upscale’s Kitty J. Pope, “Writing the letters was the first step in my healing process. I was full of anger and experiencing internal conflict and guilt. If you can forgive and move on with your life, you can find peace. You must learn to forgive not only other people, but also yourself.” Years later, Perry was a guest on Winfrey’s show.
In 1992, after developing a script from his letters, Perry moved to Atlanta where he found a job and saved all he could to produce his show. After saving 12 thousand dollars, he quit his job, and rented the 14th Street Playhouse, where he produced his play. Unfortunately, few came to see the play. Losing everything he had, Perry had to move in with friends. Subsequently, Perry entered a vicious cycle: the shows which he, with the help of some investors, financed, would always fail. He would quit his job, invest all his money, stage an unsuccessful show, and find himself destitute. After many years of this dispiriting routine, Perry simply exhausted all his resources, including places to stay. At one point, after several months of being jobless and homeless, he found a job, moved into an apartment and could even afford a telephone.
In 1998, after a telephone conversation with his parents, Perry found that, like the characters in his play, he’d been changed. The conversation was an angry one, and ended with Perry baring his soul to the people who had hurt him the most. In Madea’s Class Reunion Special Tenth Anniversary Collector’s Edition program, he recalled: “I told them everything that I had wanted to say as a little boy. I talked about all of the things that they had done to me and told them that I knew that I was not responsible for it.” He felt remarkably better. When the next opportunity to stage the show arose, Perry, now feeling completely insecure, and remembering what it felt like to be without food and shelter, decided not to go ahead. His friends prompted him to try again. Relenting, he asked for a leave from his job—the request, as usual, was denied. Overcome by fear and doubt, he turned to his higher power for guidance. He quit his job and threw himself into the project. By this time, he had lost his apartment and moved into a pay-by-the-week hotel with only a few of his possessions. Completely overwhelmed at this point, but still taking guidance from God, Perry called his mother, Maxine, initiating contact after a long period of silence. He felt nothing but forgiveness, for her, for his father, and for himself. Perry wrote on his official website, “Victims always feel as if they did things to themselves or something to ‘deserve it.’ The moment was so genuine and real that I knew something was about to change, but I didn’t know what.”
In March of 1998 I Know I’ve Been Changed was scheduled to open at the House of Blues in Atlanta. Still feeling doubtful and afraid, Perry wasn’t sure of anything anymore. It was a cold night and there was no heat in the theater. Just when he thought everything was “over” something compelled him to look out the window. What he saw literally shocked him: a long line of people, wrapped around the corner, waiting to get inside the theater! That night, and for its entire run, the show was sold out. I Know I’ve Been Changed became a hit. The play toured many large cities and, ironically, promoters who had initially dismissed Perry’s work when he needed a break were now begging to book the show.
After seeing I Know I’ve Been Changed, the Bishop T. D. Jakes approached Perry and asked him to work on a play, based on his New York Times best seller, Woman Thou Art Loosed. Perry agreed on the condition that he write, direct, and produce the play. Jakes accepted Perry’s terms. Opening in 1999, the show was a smashing success.
After working on these two shows, both dealing with very distressing and serious matters, Perry decided to write a light-hearted play. The result of this creative shift was, I Can Do Bad All By Myself, which introduced the extraordinarily eccentric character, Madea, who has since become the “star” of all Perry’s subsequent shows. He remarked to BET Magazine, “I Know I’ve Been Changed dealt with the molestation of a little boy. In Woman Thou Art Loosed it was the rape of a little girl. Very serious subjects. In this show I just wanted to have some fun. I didn’t want to go too deeply. I just wanted to be able to appreciate the laughter that we have as African American people.” Perry and Jakes also collaborated to produce Behind Closed Doors, a play that portrays a character whose life has been dramatically altered by breast cancer.
One cannot talk about Tyler Perry without acknowledging his alter-ego, Madea, who, at first glance appears as someone’s grandma who wears cat glasses and carries a large pocketbook. But, upon further inspection the viewer will find that Madea, as Tom Sime wrote in the Dallas Morning News, makes Rip Wilson’s Geraldine seem demure. The name Madea, not to be confused with the Medea of Greek mythology and tragedy (although there are some similarities), is an endearing term for grandmother, a contraction of mother and dear. Perry told BET how he was inspired to create the outrageous character, “I was actually sitting watching the ‘Nutty Professor’ … if Eddie Murphy can do this, maybe I should try it and that’s what I did. This woman is really like an aunt I have sitting around, overweight, smoking cigarettes and just talking trash all the time.” Madea, whose motto is, “I ain’t saved (nor ever will be),” smokes her glaucoma medicine, totes a gun, and, doesn’t know that everyone can see the stocking cap under her ill-fitting wig. Following the gospel theater formula, everyone finds Jesus at the end except Madea. She disappears not only to avoid being saved, but so that she can come back in the next play, bad as ever. Audiences like her to be bad. “I think it’s because people miss this kind of grandmother in our community,” Perry told Sime, “Fifteen, twenty years ago, everybody’s child belonged to the neighborhood and you’d see Madeas on all of the corners. And if somebody did something wrong, before they could finish, their mother knew because Madea had called to tell them.” Madea is also featured in Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Madea’s Family Reunion, and Madea’s Class Reunion, all of which have played to sold-out houses all over the country. In the fall of 2003, The Tyler Perry Show is scheduled to make its debut on television, featuring Madea and other characters played by Perry. Also in 2003, Perry wrote and produced, He Proposed To Me —his first Madea-less, and Perry-less play.
In his Special Tenth Anniversary Collector’s Edition theatrical program that was printed for Madea’s Class Reunion, Tyler Perry reflected upon his successes during the past decade and described how he asks God what he should “talk about.” Asserting that forgiveness is the most powerful of life’s lessons, Perry explained that he owes everything to his experiences growing up, to being “Junior.” “So many people want to forget their pains and struggles, but I have realized that it was those moments of pain that were the moments that molded and defined me and made me the man that I am today.” As a grown man who has found forgiveness in his heart, he has realized that he is living the life he could only imagine when he was a child. Perry has definitely moved on and yearns to continue to share his life lessons, “All the pain I went through, from my childhood until this very day has been worth it—now that I’m able to help inspire people to be stronger and liver better lives.”
I Know I’ve Been Changed, 1998.
Woman Thou Art Loosed, 1999.
I Can Do Bad All By Myself, 2000.
Diary of a Mad Black Woman, 2001.
Madea’s Family Reunion, 2002.
Madea’s Class Reunion, 2003.
Black Enterprise, March 2001.
BET Magazine, September 29, 2000.
Dallas Morning News, October 4, 2000; November 5, 2002.
Essence, June 2002.
Hollywood Reporter, October 28, 2002.
Philadelphia Tribune, January 9, 2001.
Washington Post, April 2, 1999.
Upscale, February 2002.
Official Tyler Perry Website, www.tylerperry.com (July 18, 2003).
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the Special 10th Anniversary Collector’s Edition: Madea’s Class Reunion, theatrical stage program and other materials provided by Tyler Perry.
—Christine Miner Minderovic
"Perry, Tyler 1969–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/perry-tyler-1969
"Perry, Tyler 1969–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved May 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/perry-tyler-1969
Playwright, actor, screenwriter, producer
When the film Diary of a Mad Black Woman shot past the romantic comedy Hitch to become the top-grossing film in the United States in mid-March of 2005, Hollywood forecasters didn't know what had hit them. The film, a careening blend of self-help, romance, Christianity, and outrageous comedy featuring an unstoppable grandmother named Madea, had been turned down by a series of distributors and bore little resemblance to any movie hit that had appeared up to that point. What Hollywood hadn't reckoned with was the creative energy of writer Tyler Perry, who realized that a huge untapped audience was ready for the stories he had to offer—stories drawn on his own rags-to-riches story of abuse and redemption.
He was born Emmitt Perry Jr. in New Orleans, Louisiana, on September 13, 1969. Perry's contractor father, he told Margena A. Christian of Jet, was a man "whose answer to everything was to beat it out of you." Perry tried to commit suicide, acquiring a pair of wrist scars that would last a lifetime. He escaped the crushing weight of abuse through class clown antics in school and through drawing and fantasy, taking the first name Tyler at age 16 because he didn't want to use his father's name. Perry dropped out of high school but later earned a GED and became a carpenter's apprentice. Another 25 or 30 jobs, he estimated, would follow before he found his true calling.
Inspired by Oprah
Perry's writing career got started one day while he was watching Oprah Winfrey's television talk show and heard Winfrey say that writing down one's experiences could be cathartic. "After I found a dictionary and looked up cathartic," he told People, "I realized what she was saying, so I started writing," unearthing memories that he called "God's little flashes of light." At first he wanted to be able to disclaim any connection to the events described in his journal if someone else found it, so he used invented names for the people he was writing about.
So the journal gradually evolved into a piece of creative work. "That's how my first play started, which features a character who confronts an abuser, forgives him, and moves on," Perry told Zondra Hughes of Ebony. Around 1990 Perry moved from New Orleans to Atlanta and finished working on the play, now titled I Know I've Been Changed. Working at a variety of jobs that included collection agent and used car salesman, he scraped together $12,000 in savings. In 1992 he rented out Atlanta's 14th Street Playhouse and mounted his own production of I Know I've Been Changed, with himself as director, producer, promoter, and star. Perry from then on, even after becoming successful, would insist on total creative control over his productions; it was the way he had learned to work.
At first, however, it was a disaster. A grand total of 30 people showed up during the play's weekend run, by the end of which Perry was discouraged and nearly broke. An investment from one of the 30 original attendees kept him from giving up, however. He performed I Know I've Been Changed in Atlanta and other smaller southeastern cities over the next few years, losing a job each time he took off to rehearse and present the play. Perry continued to hemorrhage money and to edge closer to homelessness. In 1997 he hit bottom. "I couldn't eat. I was living in my car, with a friend, or at one of those pay-by-the-week hotels," he told Jet's Christian. "It was a nightmare for me." Perry's mother, Maxine, tried to convince him to give up his theatrical quest, and one of their telephone conversations turned into a confrontation in which Perry stated that he was not responsible for the abuse he had suffered. Instead of being angry, he found that he experienced feelings of forgiveness.
Perseverance Paid Off
Perry rented Atlanta's House of Blues for one final try at theatrical success in early 1998. The heat in the theater went out, and Perry had feelings of despair as he put on his costume in a freezing dressing room. "I said, 'This is it. I'm not doing this anymore,'" he recalled to Christian. But he happened to look out a window and saw a block-long line of people waiting to see the show. The House of Blues sold out eight times in a row, forcing Perry to move the production to the much larger Fox Theatre. Nine thousand people viewed Perry's play, the Washington Post estimated, and gave the show a positive review; the theater scene that until then had often been referred to as the chitlin' circuit soon had the new name of urban theater. Producers who had turned Perry down quickly approached him about new projects, but he next chose to collaborate with Dallas evangelical pastor T.D. Jakes on an adaptation of his book Woman Thou Art Loosed.
Some would criticize Perry's plays for their mix of serious and farcical elements, but Perry shrugged off the critics. "They say that Tyler Perry has set the Black race back some 500 years with these types of 'chitlin' circuit' shows," he told Ebony's Hughes. "The problem with the naysayers is that they don't take the opportunity to see my shows. With my shows, I try to build a bridge that marries what's deemed 'legitimate theater' and so-called 'chitlin' circuit theater,' and I think I've done pretty well with that, in bringing people in to enjoy a more elevated level of theater." Along the way, Perry was encouraged by August Wilson, often considered the dean of African-American playwrights.
Concentrated on Madea Character
The Perry phenomenon continued to build, in fact, because he devised a strong comic character to complement his serious themes of healing. Madea was first introduced in Perry's 2000 play "I Can Do Bad All by Myself." The name Madea was a common Southern black contraction of "Mother Dear," also sometimes spelled M'Dear. Perry, in drag, played Madea himself. One of her theatrical ancestors was comedian Flip Wilson's Geraldine alter ego, but Madea, who talked trash, smoked marijuana, and carried a gun, was a more outrageous figure. Perry based her character on several older women he had known as a child in New Orleans.
"We watch with nostalgia when we think about this type of grandmother…," he reflected in conversation with Christian. "When she was around, everybody's kid belonged to her.… Now we're in a different time and different age where grandmothers are in their early and late 30s. People are looking for this Madea, the 68-year-old who doesn't care about being politically correct. She doesn't care what you think about her. She's going to tell the truth." Perry's performance as Madea earned him a Helen Hayes Award nomination in 2001 in the category of Outstanding Lead Actor, Non-Resident Production—the first time an urban theater production had been honored at a traditional awards ceremony.
At a Glance …
Born Emmitt Perry Jr., September 13, 1969, in New Orleans, LA; son of Emmitt Perry Sr., a contractor. Education: GED.
Helen Hayes Award nomination, Outstanding Lead Actor, Non-Resident Production, 2001.
Office—Suite 400, North Tower, 235 Peachtree St., Atlanta, GA 30303. Web—www.tyler-perry.com.
Part of the genius of the Madea character was that she could be transferred intact from storyline to storyline. Madea was featured in Perry's next play, 2001's "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," as the grandmother of Helen McCarter, an Atlanta woman who is unceremoniously dumped by her attorney husband so that another woman can move into their home. Perry continued to hone his Madea act despite the rigors of the role–"I have to talk so high for two hours and the costume is really, really, really hot. I'm soaking wet under there," he complained to Christian. The effort was worth it, however, as he expanded the Madea franchise into new plays, Madea's Family Reunion (2002) and Madea's Class Reunion (2003), and Madea Goes to Jail (2005). Claiming profits of $50 million from his plays, which were widely distributed on DVD, Perry moved into a palatial new house on 12 acres outside Atlanta. "I don't care how low you go, there's an opposite of low, and as low as I went I wanted to go that much higher," he told Hughes. "And if there was an opposite of homelessness, I wanted to find it."
Filmed Diary of a Mad Black Woman
After Woman Thou Art Loosed was made into a successful film in 2004, Hollywood executives began to wake up to the financial clout of African-American theatrical audiences. Several studios approached Perry about filming Diary of a Mad Black Woman, but only one, Lions Gate (which had financial backing on the project from the BET cable channel), offered Perry the complete creative control on which he insisted. "The only way I was going to do this was if I was left alone," he told Aldore Collier of Jet. Starring Kimberly Elise as Helen McCarter and Steve Harris as her husband, the film opened in theaters early in 2005. Perry played three roles: Madea, her brother Uncle Joe, and Helen's cousin Brian.
The inspirational Diary of a Mad Black Woman received mixed reviews but quickly broke out beyond its African-American base. That base was already substantial. "My plays bring in 30,000 to 40,000 people a weekend, but my entire story has been completely underground," Perry pointed out to Claudia Puig of USA Today. After the film topped box-office charts, Perry was pursued by a variety of marketers eager to exploit his still-growing potential. A ten-publisher bidding war resulted in Perry being signed to write Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings: Madea's Uninhibited Commentaries on Love and Life, slated for publication by Riverhead in 2006. Perry also planned to release a film version of Madea's Family Reunion that year, and the phenomenon of urban theater, thanks largely to Tyler Perry, was no longer invisible.
Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings: Madea's Uninhibited Commentaries on Love and Life, Riverhead, forthcoming.
Diary of a Mad Black Woman, 2005.
I Know I've Been Changed, 1998.
(With T.D. Jakes) Woman, Thou Art Loosed, 1999.
I Can Do Bad All by Myself, 2000.
Diary of a Mad Black Woman, 2001.
Madea's Family Reunion, 2002.
Madea's Class Reunion, 2003.
Madea Goes to Jail, 2005.
Black Enterprise, March 2001, p. 113.
Ebony, January 2004.
Entertainment Weekly, March 11, 2005, p. 12; April 29, 2005, p. 152; June 24, 2005, p. 149.
Essence, June 2000, p. 66.
Jet, December 1, 2003, p. 60; February 28, 2005, p. 51.
People, August 9, 2004, p. 101; March 7, 2005, p. 33.
Publishers Weekly, March 21, 2005, p. 12; April 18, 2005, p. 14.
USA Today, March 1, 2005.
Variety, February 28, 2005, p. 56; April 18, 2005, p. 2.
"Biography," Tyler Perry, www.tylerperry.com (August 7, 2005).
"Diary of a Mad Black Woman," Cinema Review, www.cinemareview.com/cast.asp?movieid=449905&castid=3521 (August 7, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
"Perry, Tyler." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 28, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/perry-tyler
"Perry, Tyler." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved May 28, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/perry-tyler