Actor/director/author/playwright and part-time cross-dresser Tyler Perry has spent the past several years staking out a claim in Hollywood, fighting for a tidbit of respect even after his debut film overcame its tiny release to evolve into one of last year's biggest surprises. Still, as his follow-up hits theaters this month, Perry admits that if he were to publish his memoirs they could be called "Diary of a Mad Black Man."
"I don't know why this has become a race issue," Perry fumed recently, admitting frustration over a recent Dave Chappelle talk show appearance. With a career built largely by his breakout portrayal of world-wise 68-year-old grandmother Madea Simmons, Perry was more than a bit bothered by Chappelle's assertion to Oprah that the industry has a long tradition of demeaning black men by making them dress as women.
"Robin Williams had done it and Dustin Hoffman had done it long before a lot of other people," Perry insisted, citing a longtime comedy tradition with as much history as a pie in the face. "So I don't know why it's become a race issue for him all of a sudden, because they were asked to do it, and they did it very well.
"Nobody asked me to do it," Perry continued. "I was very, very successful before I got to Hollywood, doing that character."
Now with the follow-up to "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," February 24's "Madea's Family Reunion," Perry's success seems likely to continue, even if he can't count Chappelle among his fans. "The story centers around Madea planning a family reunion, and she's got two of her great nieces," he said of the plot. "One lives with her, and the other is about to be married, and the two of them have a bunch of family secrets that are revealed during the time of this planning of the family reunion."
As those who've seen "Diary" could tell you, ads showing the "Big Momma"-looking Madea do little to represent the extreme undertakings of dark drama and slapstick comedy that Perry proudly embraces. Masters like Woody Allen, Steven Soderbergh and Jim Jarmusch regularly mix the oil-and-vinegar combination to reflect real life, but even that group might think twice before attempting to pair dramatic shots of a paraplegic being drowned with the off-color punch line of ol' Joe passing gas.
"Joe is absolutely my favorite character," beamed Perry, who plays the crude geriatric once again in "Reunion." "He is my grandfather, who has passed on, but he is hilarious."
Discussing one of his favorite scenes in "Reunion" in which Joe unleashes his bodily talents while meeting a family member's prospective love interest, Perry can't help but crack up: "He just didn't care who was comin' over to the house. He didn't care about impressing anybody. He didn't care about meeting people. If he had gas, he was gonna let it go."
Still, Perry admits that getting into Joe's body isn't nearly as entertaining as delivering his lines: "I hate the makeup for Joe, because it takes much longer than Madea. But, hands down, he is the character that I enjoy playing, because he gets to say the things that I'll be able to say one day when I get to his age, and not have any judgment about it."
It's lucky for Perry, then, that Madea once again steals the show. "[Her costume] is not that difficult to move around in once it's on," he said. "She's [based on] my mother and my aunt, but my mother and my aunt are the NC-17 version of what you see as Madea."
Infused with a heartwarming spirit of love, "Reunion" only truly gets violent when Madea confronts a bully on a school bus — another scene that Perry looks back on fondly. "Madea's thing is children at that age should have some respect, and if they don't have it, she will make them gain the respect," he insisted. "So he says the wrong thing to her, and she jumps across the seat and starts wailing on him."
In real life, Perry said, the actor who played the school-age boy didn't mind being beaten up by an old woman. "We had a conversation about it before. I walked him through it and I hit him slowly to show him how it was gonna go," he recalled. "He was laughing about it really hard. He was like, 'I can't wait to get to school to tell everybody about this!' "
Soon "Reunion" may very well come out of nowhere again to surprise Hollywood and get a bit more respect for Tyler Perry. And if Dave Chappelle doesn't appreciate the comedy lineage of a character like Madea, well, she may just have to take him onto that school bus and knock some sense into him as well.
Check out everything we've got on "Madea's Family Reunion."
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