Tyler Perry and the Rhetoric of Madea

Tyler Perry and the Rhetoric of Madea July 16, 2019

by Katherine Whitfield and Andre E. Johnson

Industry leaders recognize Tyler Perry as one of the most successful Black entertainers of all time.1 As the first African American to own a major film studio, Perry has also realized success as an actor, playwright, filmmaker, and producer. Even those who have never seen a Tyler Perry production will likely recognize his name as synonymous with that of his signature character, Madea. Though Perry has expanded his focus in recent years to include an increasing number of film projects reaching beyond the scope of Madea’s world, his characterization of the folksy, foul mouth Madea remains one of the most prominent, oft-recurring and often debated characters in Perry’s oeuvre.2
For instance, Nicole Hodges Persley sees the Madea character as “inspiring black women to translate their salient struggles against classism, sexism, and racism into feminist acts of resistance in ways that make sense to working-class black women.” She argues that “Madea provokes her audience to address contradictions inherent in the heteronormative black family structure. She pokes holes in the moral compass of the black church while using comedy as a balm to help women address polemical topics such as incest, sexual and physical abuse, intimacy, and other closeted topics in mainstream black theater, television, and film” (Persley 2012, p. 225).
However, Tamika Carey writes that “despite the positive messages” in Perry’s films, primarily conveyed through the character of Madea, Perry does not “contribute to black women’s liberation but rather points to a moment where black women’s pain is a commodity and where cultural productions about their instructive journeys to wellness are exploited sites where writers can carry out their own agendas” (Carey 2014, p. 1002).
In this essay, we will compare and contrast Madea’s character and presence on stage and screen in Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail: The Play (2006) and the feature film Madea Goes to Jail (2009). Specifically, we examine the multiple and varying ways in which the character of Madea performs for different audiences by examining how the roles of violence, religion, and wisdom operate on stage and screen. Exploring the subtle—and at times, not-so-subtle—ways in which Madea’s performances differ from stage to screen, we suggest that Madea also performs as a text that Perry then uses to impart different messages to audiences of both stage and screen.

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