A lot of ink (most of it negative) has been spilled discussing the cinematic oeuvre of Tyler Perry, whose gospel-infused morality tales leave critics cold but do so well with audiences that they've afforded Perry the chance to be an auteur — a creative who has absolute control over every one of his endeavors. And Perry's got a tough cookie of a character to thank for that.
Demon to some, angel to others, Mabel “Madea” Simmons is one of the most controversial figures to appear on the pop-culture landscape in the last few decades. Perry himself portrays the character — a tall glass of sass, sage advice and troublemaking — who made her debut in a series of popular urban passion plays that sold out houses and left audiences rolling with tales that ingeniously mixed comedy with American Christian values. Madea made the move to the big screen in 2005, and with roles in nine films (including an animated adventure this year!), all directed by Perry, it looked like the ol’ gal would never need to grace a stage again. Until now.
Perry is bringing a massive production of his latest play, Madea on the Run, to the boards of the Ellie for two nights next week. Why shell out for a stage version when you could stay at home and watch the films? Evan Saathoff, author of Madea Lives! A Film by Film Guide to Loving Tyler Perry, has the answer: “A movie is just a movie, but a Tyler Perry play is a full-on event filled with irreverence, crazy fourth-wall-breaking humor, and a whole concert’s worth of music. It’s a barely controlled circus you must see to believe.” One ticket, please!
Saathoff may be our country's only straightforward critic/scholar on Perry, and his take is fascinating. “There is no one out there like Tyler Perry, and no character quite like Madea,” says Saathoff “Too few people allow themselves to see the character's bizarre mixture of knowing humor, sage advice and immoral actions that make her so complicated and weirdly fascinating, particularly when it comes to her strong deviations from the stances made by Perry himself.”
Before you head to the Ellie to check out this new live production, here are Saathoff's suggestions for the five best Perry films that will give you a crash course in Madea and how to do bad all by yourself. Hallelujurrr!
5) Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005)
The story of a wife who seeks advice on how to pick up the pieces after her husband admits an affair and kicks her out of his life is the perfect entryway to Perry-land, as said wife gets said advice from her grandmother: Madea. “This is where it all began,” says Saathoff. “Madea's not in it as much as you'd expect (which is true of most Madea films), but she makes the most of her time. The last half-hour of this one offers some of Tyler Perry's craziness he has yet to top.”
4) Madea's Big Happy Family (2011)
Madea takes center stage as she tries to wrangle her crazy family to come together over one very important family dinner. “The first Madea movie to actually utilize her as a main character is as satisfying as you'd hope,” says Saathoff. “Even better, the spotlight on Madea also brings forth a stronger than normal utilization of support characters like Mr. Brown and Uncle Joe, making this kind of like Perry's Avengers film.”
3) A Madea Christmas (2013)
Madea sets out to bring some Christmas spirit, and goes country in the process! “Another Madea-heavy entry, this one has the surprise added bonus of none other than Larry the Cable Guy. That might sound more like a threat than a promise, but the pairing yields far more laughs than you'd expect,” says Saathoff.
2) Madea's Witness Protection (2012)
A white Wall Street banker and his family are on the run and get sent to Madea’s for protection (from whom, we wonder?). “Tyler Perry offers his take on 21st century race relations, and the results are about as goofy as you'd expect,” says Saathoff. “Along with a larger-than-normal cast of recognizable actors, this movie has a rare warmth at its center. Plus, Madea totally goes to New York City.”
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1) I Can Do Bad All By Myself (2009)
Madea catches some kids looting her home and rather than leave it to the system, she shuttles them off to their only relative: a boozy, nightclub-singing aunt played by Taraji P. Henson, who offers up some sweet shades of Cookie Lyons years before we got to take a bite. “While this film provides a poor entry point into Tyler Perry's weird world, those well-versed in the films and plays alike will find a lot to enjoy here. Madea only surfaces for a few scenes, but her antics are much more aligned with the theatrical version of the character,” says Saathoff.
Madea on the Run hits the stage at 8 p.m. Tuesday, October 20 (an October 21 performance is sold out), at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in the Denver Performing Arts Complex. Tickets range from $55 to $75 and are available (for now) at axs.com. You can read more of Evan Saathoff’s musings on Tyler Perry in his book Madea Lives! A Film by Film Guide to Loving Tyler Perry, available on Amazon.com, and read his regular contributions to pop-culture blog Birth.Movies.Death.