She's as old as your grandmother but hip enough to know about everyone from Beyoncé to Nate Dogg, and can even quote Akon's "Locked Up." She totes more guns than Tackleberry in the "Police Academy" series, but is bad enough to back down the meanest prison inmate with the force of just her knuckle game. She is almost as popular at your favorite mixtape spot as 50 Cent or Jadakiss; she's just as tall and broad as your high school football coach — and most eye-popping, she is a he.
In one weekend, playwright, music man, actor and, as Dame Dash would say, "cake-a-holic" Tyler Perry was able to see all his skills parlayed into another title: movie mogul. To the masses, "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" taking the top box-office spot (earning $22 million its first weekend) was a shock. But to the millions who have adored Perry's highly successful plays either in person or on DVD, "Diary" at #1 was no more of surprise than Friday coming after Thursday. They've been following the exploits of Perry's most popular character, Madea, for years.
"I was only going to do Madea for this one play, but the fans wouldn't let her go," Perry, who dresses in drag to play the character, explained. "She's based on my mother and my aunt and a bunch of women I grew up with. She's this amazing thing that's happening."
Amazing, and as fiery as a volcano. In Perry's new play, "Madea Goes to Jail," the gangsta granny raises hell from the big house to her own big momma's house, shooting at pimps, intimidating corrections officers and laying down a whupping on a mouthy teenager in need of guidance, all done with her brand of irreverent comedy.
Madea's cult following, strongest among women in urban communities, dates back to 2001, when Perry introduced his play "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" to wide audiences via DVDs that were sold on his Web site. Over the past four years, Perry has introduced Madea spinoffs such as "Madea's Family Reunion," "Madea's Class Reunion" and "I Can Do Bad by Myself" with successful tours that have grossed over $75 million dollars in ticket sales and an untold monetary sum from consumers wanting to take these plays home. That's because Perry's plays have been heavily bootlegged, and are sold at most places where you can cop your average mixtape.
"Every year it kept getting bigger and bigger," Perry laughed. "I released the video in 2001 for 'Diary of a Mad Black Woman.' [The DVDs] were only available on my Web site, and some people didn't have the credit card to get it. There was such a demand for it that ... these tapes started to get passed around and pirated. This last video I did, 'Meet the Browns,' was the worst-selling DVD I ever released, but everybody had it. They knew where to get it."
But the bootlegging isn't hurting Perry's popularity one bit. He's going to be touring across the country with "Madea Goes to Jail" for the next year and has been selling out most of his shows. Meanwhile, "Diary" 's showing with Hollywood made the man who wrote, funded and produced the film — and even composed music for it — an instant player.
"It's a universal story. It's a human story," Perry said. "We showed it to the audience at the 'Oprah Winfrey Show,' and her audience is very mixed. I wrestled with changing the title from 'Diary of a Mad Black Woman' to 'Diary of a Woman,' but there was a movie that huge called 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding,' and you didn't have to be Greek to enjoy that movie. I wanted it to be true to what it was. It's a woman's story, a story that a lot of people could relate to."
"Diary" centers around Kimberly Elise's character, Helen McCarter, who is informed that her marriage is over in the most unceremonious way possible: Her husband Charles literally drags her out of their mansion while his mistress, who he's fathered illegitimate children with, looks on.
"It was intense," Elise said. "We really wanted to go with it honestly within these characters' world. Steve Harris, who plays my terrible husband, is a wonderful man, and we worked closely together to make sure that scene worked in a safe way but in a realistic way. It was grueling, but we wanted to be real and honest."
Perry, who plans to shoot "Madea's Family Reunion" as his next project, said he was brutally honest with movie executives before filming "Diary": Either do it his way or no way.
"Fox Searchlight was trying to do 'Diary,' " the New Orleans native remembered. "They were sending me these notes back and forth, and I was like 'No, guys. I'm not dealing with this. I won't be changing anything.' They were like, 'Who are you?'
"I decided to take my script back. I don't give up ownership of anything. I own everything I've ever done and will continue to. I did a whole script and decided I was going to finance the whole thing and do direct-to-DVD.
"Then Lions Gate came in and said, 'We'll let you do what you want to do,' " he added. "I said, 'You can't bother me. It's got to be true to what I know it should be.' I financed 50 percent of it; they financed 50 percent."
Six years ago, Perry was in no position to finance anything, not even shelter for himself. He was homeless.
"Back in 1999, I started writing letters to myself about things I had been through," he said. "A friend of mine was like, 'This would be a really good play.' So that's where it started."
Perry moved to Atlanta, worked two jobs and was able to not just get back on his feet, but raise $12,000. He rented small theaters, and his first play, "I Been Changed," was about adults who had been abused as children.
"I had to raise the bar," Perry explained. "There are some people that won't even see Broadway shows and hate the chitterling-circuit shows. We had to walk the line between the two. They are good shows that people can relate to and appreciate."
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