He has his fans. He has his detractors. Yet for 25 years, Tyler Perry has entertained audiences with Madea, his doppelganger, in theaters and on screens. For reason’s only known to him, Perry has decided to hang up Madea’s heavy-duty bra, hausfrau flowered dresses and blue-rinse white powdered wigs. He’s giving her the boot the way he introduced her, on the stage. There will be a movie too (Tyler Perry’s A Madea Family Funeral—opens March 1, 2019). But, if you want to watch the big man/woman sweat through her Lane Bryant dresses in person, one more time, you’ll have to see her live in this play.
Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Farewell, a traveling show, pulled into town at the James L. Knight Center in downtown Miami. Folks who came to witness the end of a tradition were as interesting to watch as the actors onstage. Blue, orange, platinum blonde and pink hair could be spotted everywhere. Ladies in leopard print hot pants and matching shoes strutted around with their men in tow. African American theatergoers dominated the space, though white and Latino fans were in the crowd too. And, if you had a penny for everyone over 80 years-old, some with walkers and motorized wheel chairs, you’d be rich. Showtime.
A character named Darlene stands stage front, male dancers gyrate behind her as she sings Ann Peebles soul classic, “I Can’t Stand the Rain.” The stage splits open, revealing her living room. Darlene expects family and friends to stop by to help her celebrate her twentysomething-year-old son Malik’s graduation from medical school. Malik, his extremely-tall transgender sister Ti-Ti, his best friend Devin and others show up too. The audience is engaged, respectful and watching the family dynamics unfold.
The temperature in the room heats up when stars from Perry’s TV show Meet the Browns enter. Hot-blooded and elderly Aunt Bam (Cassie Davis) takes a seat at the dinette table. She’s perfectly cordial and lecherous as she ogles the handsome and much younger Devin. Mr. Brown (David Mann) walks in wearing a white suit patterned with loud neon-color shapes that look like narrow road signs. And, Cora Jean Simmons-Brown (Tamela Mann) comes in too. As each of the legendary actors enter, the crowd claps and oos and ahs.
With rapid fire, the characters exchange funny lines, accuse each other of all sorts of misdeeds and let their feelings be known (“I betcha you sweat prune juice”). The trumped-up drama and petty arguments escalate as Madea makes her entrance and the fans go wild. The big lady acknowledges members of her family and the audience too, some of whom she heckles: “You know the show started at 8! Why are you late? Turn off that camera!” She engages the audience, harasses a few and the place is reeling with laughter as Perry breaks the fourth wall.
What ensues is a steady stream of comic putdowns, infidelity, betrayals and rivalries that build and build until Madea pulls a large silver object out of her purse and slams it on the table to gain control of the hysteria. The actors looked shocked. The audience too. It’s a gun! Chuckles turn into group laughing fits that are so forceful a few bladders may have lost control. As the first act ends, the tattered family heads out to attend the graduation ceremony.
Knee-deep into the second act there is shocking revelation about two lovers who have kept their dalliances a secret. Their affair announcement provokes audible gasps from the cast (fake) and the fans (real). Finally, it is Madea who calms the family, assuring them that if they express their true feelings and trust in God, they will all be fine. As in most Perry productions, there is a spiritual aspect to the story, and that’s an element audiences expect. They come from afar for the humor and stay for the soul-cleansing. Madea: “When you build walls to keep people out, you can’t get out.”
At points in the play, actors walk to the front of the stage to perform pop, soul or gospel songs that advance the plot. Toward the end of the second and final act, this shtick becomes an over-abundantly used crutch. It’s as if Perry ran out of ideas or had no faith in the three-act play format and decided that one and a-half acts will do. The drama ends abruptly and actors break into songs that have no connection to the proceedings, though they’re fun to watch. The most interesting musical performances are the male cast crooning and dancing to Bell Biv Devoe’s “Poison” and the superb Tamela Mann singing her heart out with “Take Me to the King.” Minus the frustrating ending, what’s on view could have a solid shot as a Broadway comedy, even though that may not be part of the plan.
The play is a great way for Perry’s fans and naysayers to have a fun night out and laugh together. After 25 years of Madea being front, center and all up in your face, she’s about to bow out gracefully. The wigs, falsies and plus-size dresses will gather dust in a closet or be periodically refreshed in a museum showcase. She’ll be history. Regardless of what you think of Perry, his humor and crew, the big lady is an indelible part of black culture. Something like Flip Wilson’s Geraldine—only on steroids and able to tackle Odell Beckham Jr. or body-slam Hulk Hogan.
The national tour of Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Farewell is scheduled to end in Atlanta, GA at the end of May. Until then, Perry and his gypsy troupers will portray the iconic characters who have surrounded the well-known matriarch until they run her into the ground. Literally.