Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Madea's Not My Flavor

My last post generated lots of comments, delivered directly to my email account because unbeknown to me my you can only place comments on my blog if you have gmail, yahoo or AOL accounts. After a lengthy conversation with one of my younger friends, who thoroughly enjoys Mr. Perry’s work, I admitted it was unfair for me to dismiss the Madea movies based on promos I’ve seen. One of the local stations here in San Miguel was running Madea’s Family Reunion, so I watched it Sunday night. This was a film version of a morality play, delivering a strong message of the need to respect yourself and others, and assume personal responsibility. I understood immediately why these films are so popular. It was not the message but the method of delivery that I didn’t like. I prefer a subtler approach. I thought the film was didactic, overburdened with instructive or factual matter to the exclusion of graceful and pleasing detail so that they are pompously dull and erudite (

Instead of being fully developed characters, most of the people in Mr. Perry’s film represented ideas. The bus driver was the ideal man; both the mother and the wedding planner were examples of misplaced values. They were one dimensional like paper-doll. Most human beings have more than one note, generally we are complex, often riddled with contradictions—think Denzel’s Washington in American Gangster, Pilot in Song of Solomon or any of people that inhabit Toni Morrison’s stories. I think this technique of storytelling is manipulative. Please, present me with a three-dimensional person and let me draw my own conclusions about who he is. Don’t insult my intelligence.

In playwriting 101, one of the first things you’re taught is, show don’t tell. For the most part Mr. Perry shows us his characters’ one note but often doesn’t trust his audience to interpret what they’ve seen. Ms. Whitfield’s actions make it clear that her character has misplaced values but he still editorializes. Madea says, more than once, that she’s bourgie. When it comes to theme, he never shows, he only tells. The two most blatant examples are both delivered by Ms. Tyson: her speech expressing sorrow for the younger women because they don’t have the quality of relationship with their men that she had with her deceased husband, and the sermon that she delivers near the end of the film. Why didn’t he show us the relationship Cicely describes? Madea and her husband could have illustrated this; instead he uses them for comic relief—playing the dozens, verbally abusing each other. And I don’t like films that sermonize—I think sermons should be delivered in the pulpit.

Clearly Madea’s Family Reunion wasn’t a film that appealed to me. But I don’t object to this movie, my objection is that kind of Black film I’d enjoy hardly ever finds its way to the screen. I don’t want you to think I don’t go to the movies, I do. Every year films I like are released but a couple times each year I’d like them to reflect my culture.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Remembering For Colored Girls

Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, was the play that defined the 70s for me. I was just becoming a woman, had recently celebrated my 25th birthday, when it hit New York. My friends and I had never seen anything like it on stage before. Seven Black actresses, in ever shade from café au lait to dark chocolate, sashshayed across the stage in costumes reminiscent of Ailey’s Revelations, expressing in vivid and powerful language details of failed relationships. Although some critics thought it was negative portrayal of Black men, they missed the point. It spoke of the bad choices many Black women of our generation made until we, like the women in the piece, learned to love ourselves fiercely.

When the Public Theatre held auditions for the road show, every dramatic Black actress in my age range was hoping to get a role. I made to second callbacks for the Lady in Yellow and experienced jealousy, for the first time, when my then-friend, LaTanya Richardson, was cast as the Lady in Red.

I was surprised at how many details I remembered, from the performances I saw, when a friend told me that they were reviving the piece. Risë Collins, the Lady in Purple, moving across the stage with the grace of Judith Jamison in “Sechita.” My friend Laurie Carlos’ ultimate sass in “Sorry” that was equally matched with poignancy in another poem where she talked about the “dying, dangling between her legs.” Aku Kadogo, the Lady in Yellow, assuming a wicked walk for “Graduation Night,” so her friends wouldn’t know that she was the only virgin in the crowd. And Trazana Beverley’s impeccable timing on the refrain, charming, charming, as she talked about the lover who only called in the middle of the night.

I had assumed they were reviving the play when I went online to get details and was disappointed to learn that my least favorite director, Tyler Perry, was reinterpreting Colored Girls for the screen. It is impossible not to respect Mr. Perry’s accomplishments. He has made a series of highly successful movies—has made a fortune while providing employment for a multitude of Black actors. Although there’s a vast audience for Mr. Perry’s films, he doesn’t make the kind of movies I enjoy. Admittedly, I’ve only seen a couple. I’ve assiduously avoided those that veered toward slapstick or the ones where Mr. Perry appeared in drag. Why the hell didn’t he hire an actress? These weren’t comedy sketches for Saturday Night Live.

It stretches my credulity to think that the same director who creates stereotypical, somewhat farcical characters in his movies can handle the complexities of Shange’s women. And I don’t understand why he’s including men or why most of the actresses he’s cast are significantly older than the original cast. But each generation interprets life differently and Tyler definitely has his finger on the pulse of today’s popular Black culture. Maybe the movie that I’d love wouldn’t appeal to today’s 20-somethings. Perhaps he’ll surprise me and create something I’ll respect. But if not, a new generation will get to hear Ntozake’s amazing poems. I think she’s the wordsmith of my generation.