Thursday, 19 November 2015

As Madea, Tyler Perry reaps riches and controversy

There's little question that any list of contemporary pop culture's most beloved fictional characters would have the name "Madea" at or near the top.


As played by her creator, show-biz mogul Tyler Perry, Madea - a/k/a the fictional character Mable Simmons - is an elderly, take-no-crap African-American woman who comes off - in a comical way, of course - as more than slightly unhinged. As in, she isn't afraid to threaten gunplay if crossed.

Madea is the star of a series of wildly successful films and stage plays, the newest of which, "Madea on the Run," opens a six-day run Tuesday at the Merriam Theater.

As Madea, Tyler Perry reaps riches and controversy
The comedy-with-music is the seventh with "Madea" in the title. Perry last brought a "Madea" show to a Philly stage in 2012.

According to Perry, who stars in the production (he also writes, produces and directs), this latest chapter in Madea's story finds the feisty senior citizen on the lam from law enforcement (for an unspecified crime) and taking refuge at a friend's house, where she quickly inserts herself into the friend's troubles.

"That friend's family is having a lot of very real problems that plague our society today, and helping get families in order is what Madea has her own way of doing. So she does that," Perry recently told the newspaper AM New York.

According to Perry, 46, the character of Madea was inspired by the women closest and most important to him in his youth - and by a far more famous individual.

"Madea is a cross between my mother and my aunt and watchingEddie Murphy . . . do 'The Klumps,' " Perry told Terry Gross during a 2012 radio chat on "Fresh Air."

"I thought maybe I should try my hand at a female character. And that's what came up. I thought I'd [create] the funniest person that I know, and she is exactly the PG version of my mother and my aunt, and I loved having an opportunity to pay homage to them."

His Madea, he continued, is "strong, witty, loving, I mean really, just like my mother used to be. She would beat the hell out of you but make sure the ambulance got there in time to make sure they could set your arm back, you know what I mean? Because the love was there inside all of it. I know it sounds really strange, but that's the old-school mentality."

Which explains Madea's enduring appeal, he continued. "That's why I think the character is so popular, because a lot of people miss that type of grandmother. Everybody is so worried about being politically correct that she's no longer around," he said.

Thanks in large part to the "Madea" franchise, Perry is acknowledged as one of the most financially successful African-Americans in show business.

But that doesn't mean that the character, or his work in general, hasn't inspired criticisms that Madea's exaggerated mannerisms and actions reinforce the oldest and worst black stereotypes. Among the more prominent of Perry/Madea detractors has been film director Spike Lee, who, in a 2009 interview with the TV show "Our World with Black Enterprise," famously ignited a feud with Perry by describing the latter's work (including the "Madea" canon) as "coonery buffoonery."

In 2013, Lee walked back his words, telling Oprah Winfrey, "I love Tyler," and suggesting the two might even one day work together. But Lee isn't the only cultural critic who is dismayed by Perry's portrayals of African-Americans.

"The African-American population, particularly the people who like Madea, are people who are responding out of a deep sense, almost a perverse sense, of self-hatred and negative portrayal of African people, which I think is part of the centuries-old effort to humiliate African men and women in this country and turn black people into slaves," said Molefi Kete Asante, professor and chair of the African-American studies department at Temple University.

"I think that what the African-American population is responding to is [seeing] ourselves portrayed in such a deeply distasteful manner that we believe that this . . . character who is capable of cleaning up all the mess that other people leave around is somehow allowing us to have some notion of catharsis of, probably, the deep slave experience."

Although Asante admitted he considers Perry a "brilliant writer," he insisted that he doesn't "particularly find anything funny about [Madea]."

"The character herself," he said, "shows me that the joke is really on black people."
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