Diary of a Successful Black Playwright

ByABC News

June 17, 2005 — -- Madea Simmons, a pistol-packing, in-your-face grandmother, is entertaining audiences across the country -- and has made actor, playwright and producer Tyler Perry a very rich man.

"I disappear. The man you see in front of you -- I disappear and she takes over," Perry, who portrays Simmons onstage, told "20/20's" Deborah Roberts.

The handsome, 6-foot-5 body that the feisty Madea inhabits belongs to the 35-year-old Perry, whose stage show "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" has hit a nerve with black audiences everywhere.

Perry says Madea's appeal is her no-holds-barred attitude. "Madea can talk about anything -- from abstaining from sex to what to do when your kids are working on your nerves," he said.

Perry describes the show as a blend of theater, stand-up comedy, a gospel concert and a church service.

For the past seven years, Perry's plays have been packing them in, especially the black, churchgoing community, an audience that Hollywood has largely ignored.

Perry said his Hollywood executives balked at his idea. "I went to a big studio, and the guy tells me black people who go to church don't go to movies. That's what the guy said to me," he recalled.

That executive would soon learn he was dead wrong. Perry's film, "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," shot to No. 1 on its opening weekend in February. Perry shot the film for $5 million dollars, part of it with his own money, and it's already earned 10 times that and will reel in even more when the DVD comes out later this month.

The film features the beloved Madea, in her usual role as the matriarch of a dysfunctional family. But the real surprise is that the talented Perry also shows up in two other roles. Loyal fans loved it, but movie reviewers did not -- calling it a "remarkable mess" or describing Madea as cartoonish.

Perry takes the criticism in stride, and says his work depicts a life he knows. "That's how life is. That's how life is for, for me and for a lot of people. It's one minute you're in a very serious, dramatic situation, the next minute you're laughin' your head off," he said.

And the laughter that has been the ticket to Perry's success has been hard-won. Perry says his father was abusive, and his childhood was anything but joyful.

"The first 28 years of my life I don't remember ever being happy. … I'm talking beatings, I'm talking verbal abuse, I'm talking this constant barrage of insults," he told Roberts.

"Friday and Saturday nights were the worst. He would go out, he would drink, he would come in and he -- this is a man who bit my uncle's finger off in an argument and spit it on the floor," he added.

Perry said it was his mother and his faith that kept him going.

And then Oprah Winfrey changed everything, Perry said. Tyler said he was watching one day when she mentioned writing as a way to heal emotional pain. He did.

He wrote about what he knew -- abuse, hardship and the love of God and called it "I Know I've Been Changed."

But it took a while for writing to bring Perry financial success. Friend Joey Blackwell recalled Perry's rough start.

"He called, and he was literally in tears. And he said, "Man, I need some help. … I couldn't pay my rent, and they put my furniture out," Blackwell said.

Forced to leave his tiny apartment, Blackwell says Tyler borrowed money and sold off his belongings to survive.

"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?'"

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