Perry’s play’s, and his movie, are all about self image, self empowerment and self defense. They mix equal parts fundamentalist Christianity, gun toting survivalism and common sense to come up with a formula for survival in a world often short on good advice and long on bad short cuts. Whether Madea is in the face of a spoiled teenager or a vicious ghetto pimp she always knows where the belt, or gun, is hidden. She talks out of turn at all times and she makes up her own rules. This frequently lands her in jail or in trouble with one person or another. But her truthfulness and loyalty always see her through in the end.
Madea Goes to Jail has some very funny lines and Perry knows how to deliver them with gusto. He also doesn’t hesitate to improvise on stage, sometimes with fabulous results. Members of the audience are well advised to get seated by the beginning of the show, lest they become part of the show as butts of Madea’s impromptu humor. Late comers during a messy snow storm in Newark were greeted with: “Why don’t you get here on time? Can’t you see it’s hard enough for me to remember my lines without you traipsin’ in the middle? Heck, its been snowin’ around here for years! You know dat...”
He has an excellent skill for presenting bawdy, old-fashioned, unapologetic Redd Foxx humor in sufficiently good taste to get a belly laugh from the adults without giving too much away to the kids. His writing is unabashed but still quite acceptable for audiences of all ages. Because he frequently includes issues of character and maturity, his plays and films are excellent for the whole family, although they may get a little preachy for young people at times. Family is everything to Perry, and to Madea, and that gives his work a warm feeling in spite of the tough inner-city brickbats that assail his characters.
Perry is a surviving victim of child abuse as depicted in his first play, “I Am Changed,” and so he knows about being tough and working with cards as they are dealt. His mantra is that everything happens for a reason. The corollary is that everything that happens is both good and bad, depending on how a person handles it. He preaches self-reliance and honest self-examination at the same time, telling his audience to look inside themselves for answers and for direction. He doesn’t wave a bible at the audience, but holy salvation is a presence in most of his work. Region is a part of survival to Tyler Perry.
Madea Goes to Jail is presented in about seven acts and lasts a little over two hours including the fifteen minute intermission. The first half is the telling of the story of Madea’s family: how some are saved and some are lost, but no one saved or lost without a reason. The second half wraps up the plot with Madea saving the day against a vicious street pimp who, unfortunately, acts entirely too much like a vicious street pimp. Oversimplification is a continuing flaw in Perry’s work, both in the theatre and on the screen, but then he has a lot to say in a short amount of time.
After the conclusion of the story, the play segues into a free-form comedy consisting of musical performances by each of the cast members and spontaneous humor by Perry. This gives each of the players a chance to be the star for a time and show off what they can do. This is, presumably, Perry’s way of thanking them for being there. One hopes it is not in lieu of cash payment.
Unfortunately, the free form nature of the last twenty or thirty minutes doesn’t match the witty and spirited interactions of the first half of the performance, and the play lags at the end. The audience might be better off without it, but that is hard to say. The effect probably varies with each performance and may come off better at some times than others. But the fact remains that Perry is a great and funny writer and his cast are dedicated and professional in their approach to their work. Perhaps their professionalism is what makes the written, rehearsed and performed material come off best.
Carry on Madea, you straight shooter, and long may your banners (or something) wave!
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