"There was a three-month period where I was homeless, out on the streets. I would sleep in my car, and, which was a Geo Metro convertible," he recalled.
But Perry's life was just about to change.
Perry soon had investors and got word out to black churches about his show. Suddenly one play sold out, then another and another. Perry was becoming successful -- and rich.
The former homeless man now lives in a mansion just outside Atlanta. And his biggest indulgence? Shoes -- lots of shoes. Shoes were something he scrimped on while poor. Tyler says his lavish home, complete with a music room where he writes songs for his musicals, is testament to the realization of dreams.
But he rarely dreams there since he's usually on the road filling a niche that his core audience knows so well.
Some people have described Perry's plays as popular on the "chitlin' circuit," a phrase that Perry no longer finds offensive. "I used to find it insulting but now I really have a tremendous amount of appreciation for it," he said.
The term "chitlin circuit" has its origins in America's segregationist history. "It goes back to the early part of the 20th century, when African-American entertainers had many venues closed to them," said Donald Bogle, who writes about the history of black entertainment.
"It may sound derogatory, in a sense, but when it was used, it was really used with affection, and it just summed up a kind of down-home quality, about the audiences that were coming there to see it, and very excited about it. So he's part of that, that tradition," Bogle said.
There are plenty of laughs in Tyler's productions, but his message is a serious one that took him years to learn.
"It's the running theme in every show that I've ever done, is learning how to forgive. I learned the power of forgiveness," he said.
Perry said he confronted his father about the abuse he suffered as a child.
Perry said he told his father in a phone call, "I didn't deserve what you did. I think you were an evil bastard." Perry said the call was cathartic. "Just to be able to say those kinds of things. As the little boy couldn't say it, but as a man, who had no fear, I could say it. … And I could hear him crying. And, by the end of the conversation he said, I love you, for the first time in my life, I heard it from him -- at 28," he said.
In his hit movie, Cicely Tyson stars, urging her daughter, played by Kimberly Elise, to forgive her abusive husband. Some may find that a controversial strategy, but Perry finds strength in it. "You take your power back when you confront someone who's done something very very bad to you," he said.
Perry could kick back and enjoy his riches, but he's hard at work on another film, and new deals including an HBO special. He's been named one of People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" and he's writing a new book for Madea, "Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings."
What would Madea say about Perry's success? Perry laughed and conjured up the character, saying, "I can't say it on TV. 'What the hell is this? Who need all this space?'"