c. 2005 Religion News Service
(UNDATED) Madea’s in the house.
That’s the best way to explain the success of “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” the $5.5 million movie comedy with Christian themes that grossed more than $22 million on its opening weekend and is approaching $50 million so far, despite pans from critics.
Not since “The Passion of the Christ” have so many film distributors and members of the media scrambled harder to figure out something they don’t understand.
Instead of Jesus, the protagonist this time is a man in a size-30 dress grinding his hips as a gun-toting grandma.
Some postulate that the phenomenal success of “Diary” is a logical outgrowth of the wild popularity of the “chitlin’ circuit” of gospel plays, one of which provided the basis for the movie, a crude spoof of 1970’s “Diary of a Mad Housewife.”
It’s true that these cheaply produced, raucously vaudeville church services are big with middle-class black audiences, especially women.
Black women over age 25 account for 65 percent of “Diary” attendance. That’s a significant number for studio execs, who won over black men long ago with blaxploitation films and their modern-day equivalents but haven’t done well with black women since “Waiting to Exhale.”
But adapting movies from urban circuit plays doesn’t always spell automatic success.
The stage show that started the gospel-play phenom in the late 1980s was Shelly Garrett’s “Beauty Shop,” which has been made into a movie called “The Salon.” But the film didn’t exactly set this year’s Sundance Film Festival on fire despite being directed and adapted by the “Barbershop” franchise’s Mark Brown.
No release date has been set for “The Salon.” To confuse matters, a bigger-budget Queen Latifah film titled “Beauty Shop,” unconnected with Garrett’s play, will be released March 30.
Others come closer to the truth by saying the secret of “Diary” lies in the fact that it is based on a gospel play by Tyler Perry, who has gone from living out of his car to living in a 26-room mansion outside Atlanta (it’s one of the locations for the film) since his first success in 1998.
Even before the movie, his eight touring plays had racked up $80 million at the box office, not including video and DVD sales.
The key to “Diary” is a pistol-packing granny by the name of Madea Simmons, played in drag (and a fat suit) by the playwright himself (one of three roles he takes in the film).
Born in Perry’s third play, “I Can Do Bad All by Myself,” and a constant in four other Perry productions, Madea is a contraction of “Mother Dear,” a term of endearment for some older, female family members in the black community.
Madea is tangential to the main plot of “Diary” _ a socialite (the striking Kimberly Elise) gets dumped after 20 years by her lawyer husband but comes to find herself, forgiveness and a better, more sensitive man. Oh yes, and reaffirms her faith in the Christian God.
But Madea is more than just comic relief. Although she has nothing to do with the Greek tragic heroine Medea, who slays her children to spite her husband, she does fulfill the ancient Greek role of Chorus, commenting slyly and ironically on the action.
Unlike a Greek Chorus, she also line dances.
The chitlin’ circuit, which is not a derogatory term, according to Perry, provided a living for musicians such as Ray Charles and B.B. King before they crossed into the mainstream.
The plays now on the circuit _ produced by the likes of Garrett, David E. Talbert and Angela Barrow-Dunlap _ have titles such as “If These Hips Could Talk,” “Real Men Pray” and “I’m Doing the Right Thing … With the Wrong Man.”
They have their roots in what some critics see as more “legitimate” black drama, “The Amen Corner,” “Raisin in the Sun” (which has been lampooned as “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play”) and “Your Arms Too Short to Box With God.”
Some practitioners of more serious drama, black and white, have a real problem with the chitlin’ circuit. The success of the gospel plays at the box office has attracted talents such as Billy Dee Williams, Peabo Bryson, Malik Yoba and Stephanie Mills. Yet the plays tend to have cheap, one-story-high sets swallowed up in the huge theaters they play, formulaic plots and stereotyped characters.
There’s the wronged woman (or, occasionally, man), the no-good man (or, occasionally, woman), the ever-ready milkman (or janitor or mechanic), the evils of drugs (booze, too), a comically over-the-top gay man (usually a hairdresser) and a come-to-Jesus moment.
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“Diary,” like much of Perry’s work, suffers from a similarly simplistic outlook, incredible characters and pat answers (usually extolled by a fine gospel choir) to complicated human failings such as betrayal, addiction and adultery.
But “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” avoids making fun of gay men. It seems to differentiate between poor folks smoking marijuana at a party (which appears to be OK) and an upper-middle-class mom strung out on heroin (not).
And most importantly: Madea is agnostic. Firing her gun into the ceiling and telling salty tales, she says she just doesn’t get all the churchy stuff, thankfully blunting some of the self-righteousness.
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Perry is currently on tour, selling out theaters in “Madea Goes to Jail.” A movie sequel to “Diary,” “Madea’s Family Reunion,” is in the works and has twice the budget. And negotiations for a Madea sitcom, which broke down with CBS before the movie, just might be revived.
If there is a rush to produce more black gospel plays as movies, don’t expect them all to be hits at the box office. But Perry is only 35. Madea’s in the house to stay.
MO/JL/PH END BROWN
(Tony Brown is theater critic for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland.)