The Tyler Perry franchise of movies has introduced to mainstream America the black gospel play genre, something the writer-actor-director already franchised across the country. With perhaps one exception I have yet to sit through an entire Perry film, though most of what I’ve seen to date has been entertaining enough. But there’s no question his work resonates with millions and that’s made him a bankable name and brand as a filmmaker and as a dramatist. The following short piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is from a few years ago. It took a cursory look at this phenomenon on the eve of one of Perry’s touring plays coming here. For context, I spoke with two of the play’s stars, David and Tamela Mann, and with an Omaha gospel playwright, Llana Smith. You can find my profile of Llana and her gospel playwriting on this blog.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Tyler Perry’s all the rage these days with his smash, pseudo-gospel plays and movies. Some signature characters, such as Madea and the Browns, will soon be staples on television, too. He’s become rich by tapping a largely ignored resource tailor-made for his work – black churches, whose legions of members, with their millions of dollars in disposable income, turn out in droves for his shows/films. All this love and box office success has revived and legitimized the old Chitlin Circuit.
No clearer example of this can be found in Omaha. Bus loads of fans, drawn from congregations like that at Salem Baptist Church, travel to see his work in Kansas City, the nearest place his live stage shows have played, until now. His newest touring production, What’s Done in the Dark, is selling out fast for March 13-14 shows at the Orpheum Theatre. It’s the first time a Perry play has come here and the local black church community plans to come out in force.
Llana Smith is going with a group of her girlfriends from church. The women got tickets as soon as they went on sale. Smith, drama ministry director at Salem, Omaha’s largest Baptist church, is not your ordinary Perry admirer. She writes gospel plays herself, just as her mother Pauline did. Two of her own, Big Momma’s House and These Walls Must Come Down, were produced last summer in Macon, Ga. and Wichita, Kansas, respectively. Just as Perry’s work travels, there is talk Momma’s House will tour down south, maybe even to Perry’s home base of Atlanta.
There’s a long tradition of gospel plays, also known as message or inspirational plays. Most are scriptural-based and performed in churches or social halls, where they must be somewhat circumspect. But Smith said Perry’s work resonates with younger, hipper audiences by pushing the secular boundaries of the form.
“So many young people are into Tyler Perry, it’s just unreal,” Smith said. “He has broken a mold and paved a way that’s never come before. He’s taken it up to another level. He’s put his own stamp on it. His plays talk about gay life, which is a taboo within the church. When he acts in his shows, he plays male and female characters. And then there’s the language. It isn’t cursing outright, but he’ll have lines like, ‘Damn, I’m sick of you,’ or, ‘Hell, if you don’t get up out of there…’ We know good and well it’s how people talk.”
She said his plays capture the spirit of the African-American experience. “A lot of them are reality. It’s just life in the black family, in the black home..and it’s like we can relate to it.” She said in order for a gospel play to live, it has to get “our lingo” right, and Perry gets the black urban patios and slang down pat. As she exhorts the casts in her own plays, “Y’all got to make this real. People gotta be able to feel.”
“The main thing is it comes from a very real place,” said David Mann, the holy roller Mr. Brown in What’s Done. Mann’s real life wife, Tamela Mann, appears as his busy-body daughter Cora. Mr. Brown and Cora are recurring characters in the Perry canon and the Manns are veteran players in his shows. They’ve gone on this incredible rise with him since the late ‘90s. Mann said Perry’s plays “deal with a lot of issues that happen in our community” – illicit drugs, STDs, deadbeat parents – and are replete with familiar family-church situations and stock characters that “everyone can kind of identify with. People recognize what they see every day.”
What’s Done is set in a hospital, where the plot conveniently addresses many health problems afflicting blacks, including diabetes and high blood pressure. As in a soap opera, anything that can go wrong, does.
True to its gospel roots, this play and others like it portray strong matriarchs and a gallery of archetypal, some say stereotypical, sinners, saints, comic foils, heavies, conflicts and reunions. Not everyone is saved or condemned. Any lessons or morals are for audiences to glean. It’s not church, after all, it’s entertainment. Still, in the tug of war between good and evil, a redeeming, comforting message is left.
“It’s like a roller coaster – you get your laughter, you get your drama and everything in between,” Tamela Mann said. “It’s more of an inspiration. If you’re going through something it’ll help you get through whatever you’re going through.”
“This actually hits you in real subtle ways,” said David Mann. “You get to laugh, you get to cry, you get to rejoice. There’s some really good singing in the show. It’s really kind of a public service announcement, wrapped in comedy, drama and music, without being a public service announcement, without being too preachy.”
Part of the appeal is the savvy casting of name singers, even film/TV stars. The Manns are among many noted gospel, R & B and soul recording vocalists in What’s Done. The couple hit their stride performing with acclaimed gospel artist Kirk Franklin. They later headlined Perry’s play Meet the Browns, a TV sit com spin off of which they star in next summer.
While gospel plays by other authors come here, they’re confined to the Music Hall, not the Orpheum, another indication of Perry’s breakout success. While she’s seen some “excellent ones,” Smith said none capture “our lifestyle” the way Perry’s do. “He’s so every day.”
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