Written and produced by Tyler Perry
by Debbie Minter Jackson
Mr. Brown & Cora (David Mann & Tamela Mann)
The Tyler Perry Experience
Tyler Perry. The name alone can pack a playhouse with patrons shelling out $50 a pop for a ticket without a word of print advertising or even a notice in the mainstream media. Before his movies, television appearances, or blessings from Oprah, Tyler Perry made a liar out of anyone who said that black folks don’t attend theater. When he writes, they come in droves by the busloads as seen in his current touring production, What’s Done in the Dark at the Warner Theater.
Perry’s material is an acquired taste, and that’s putting it mildly. With an eclectic mix of the broad slapstick humor from the WB network (e.g. Moesha, Martin, Monique), Perry mixes in soul stirring gospel, redemption, electrifying and belting voices, testimony of life’s hardships, struggle, ministry, more gospel, and telling it like it is in yo’ face social reality. Perry’s scene stealing, larger than life character Madea, though not in the piece, is referred to with such fondness and familiarity that she may as well be.
Although you couldn’t tell it from Madea’s crazy antics, Perry’s plays feel more like "Gospel Drama" with their consistent references to God being in the healing and fixing business, love and redemption. What’s Done in the Dark has the standard cast of characters, some would call cartoonish and buffoonish, but entertaining. The only one missing is the obligatory flamboyantly gay hair stylist, and that’s probably because Perry has subsumed that dynamic into his own personae. Set in an imaginary medical center, the cast consists of a hard working single mother and her athletically gifted son, a gorgeous underling with a heart of gold, overweight nurses lusting over McDreamy doctors, and of course, Mr. Brown, the obnoxious fool uttering malapropisms galore. It’s almost too much to endure. In fact, if it weren’t for the red hot band and tremendous caliber of vocal performances, it would really be too much, but apparently not enough for his followers who buy his memorabilia by the truck loads, hang onto his every word, including his books – the latest is "Don’t Make a Black Woman Take Off her Earrings" and of course, multiple copies of his DVD’s. I have friends who can recite (and re-enact) full passages of his whomping, stomping characters, and family members who still laugh themselves into hysterics watching scenes they’ve seen multiple times. How does he do it?
Obviously, Perry has tapped into a treasure trove market by giving voice to characters and feelings that rarely see the light of day. His women are as big as their gut blasting voices, and the slapstick is more reminiscent of vaudeville than Amos and Andy. At the same time, he’s a sort of weather vane for "legitimate" theater. There is a serious distinction between Perry enthusiasts and the August Wilson crowd – the twain rarely meet and are often diametrically opposed in their appreciation for humor and drama. But then there’s Oprah in the middle asking, "Can’t we all just get along?" Oprah is that rare soul who bridges that chasm; she gets both Perry and Wilson, and that’s quite a leap.
But back to his current show. What’s Done in the Dark tells interlocking stories of characters dealing with life’s hurts, infidelity, redemption and love. While the story is formulaic, I liked the attention to health issues in the black community – sexually transmitted diseases, "sugar" diabetes, and admonitions about diet and exercise– valuable lessons told through the context of theater. Another Perry trademark is a high falutin’ character getting his one-uppance. Perry, who had a field day with that scenario in Diary of a Mad Black Woman, turned it into a successful movie. But here, the characters are just too shallow to explore amidst all the hand clapping and Bible thumping, butt-trembling and obligatory pistol packing.
Still, he’s an amazing success story unto himself, whose own fascinating life journey from homelessness to multimillionaire will, I’m sure, find its way into a blockbusting, sideslapping movie by way of Happyness. Until then, see where you fit along the Perry divide and catch one of his many hits, or maybe even his upcoming movie, Daddy’s Little Girl. His big-butt humor might even sneak up on you. Then, Lawd have mercy, you could find yourself humming tunes from one of his early dramas, I Know I’ve Been Changed. You just never know.
What’s Done in the Dark is playing at the Warner Theater through January 28th. Wed -Sat at 8pm, Saturday and Sunday at 3pm, Sunday at 7:30pm. Tickets: $44.50 – $51.50 All shows are nearly sold out. Ticketmaster For more information: Tyler Perry website