Tyler Perry Biography
Inspired by Oprah, Perseverance Paid Off, Concentrated on Madea Character
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.
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