It wasn't long after I heard that Tyler Perry would be bringing Ntozake Shange's groundbreaking For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf to the screen that I began to wonder which color Madea would get.
The characters in Shange's Obie Award-winning play don't have names but are described as Lady in Red, Lady in Blue, etc. One by one, they deliver poem-monologues about abortion, domestic violence, love in the back seat of a Buick and more. The play was among the earliest in the feminist era to delve deeply into the black woman's experience, touching a raw nerve with open talk about sometimes misogynistic relationships with black men. It was the opening salvo that brought the war between the sexes out of the shadows in the black community.
I thought in addition to writing, directing and producing, Tyler might put on his dress and wig as Madea in the role of the Lady in Brown; she's the one who performs the first poem and kind of pulls the themes together at the end. That's Madea's job in many of Perry's plays and movies: She holds the sistas together. Whether they got man trouble, more man trouble, money trouble or drug trouble, she's the one who can step in with sidearm, chainsaw, ghetto grandma advice or a withering cut of the eyes. Then Perry could name the piece For Men in Drag Who Have Considered Cutting Up a Motherfucker When ...
But apparently Madea won't be onscreen in this forthcoming production, although there is star power with Halle Berry, Angela Bassett and Jill Scott signed on. Experienced and respected actresses all, but not enough to quell the blogosphere uprising of incredulousness regarding Perry getting his hands on one of the, dare I say, seminal works of black feminist literature.
Cultural critic Thembi Ford wrote in her blog, The Black Snob, that Perry is "not good enough for Ntozake Shange." Her piece was also posted on the more popular black blog known as The Root. On another blog, called Jezebel, writer Latoya Peterson asks, "Is Tyler Perry the right man to tell black women's stories?" The answer from a commentator on that blog wrote: "Would anybody hire Larry Flynt to do The Vagina Monologues? No? OK, then."
At least Perry knows what it feels like to wear a dress. But the question of his art speaks to a tug of war between high and popular culture. In essence, it's the war between the Wannabes and the Jigaboos in Spike Lee's School Daze. The issue is who are black people and what do we want out of our artists? Are we the jazz-loving, highbrow Huxtables or the funky, get-down Jeffersons?
The answer is that we are both, and even more. But that doesn't stop us from fighting it out on the ideological battleground. On the high end, Spike Lee, who went to film school, has been making thought-provoking films with indefinite answers to some of the most incendiary issues of the day. He also had an early penchant for casting himself as the goofy nerd or sidekick character (She's Gotta Have It, School Daze, Malcolm X, Jungle Fever).
Tyler Perry, a high school dropout who earned a GED, made his mark producing plays and then movies about the personal foibles of ghetto village inhabitants with their drug, money and relationship problems. In contrast to Lee, Perry's works have a solid, unwavering solution — go to church. One would suspect that he will sharpen the spiritual "rainbow" of the play and reflect that in a new title: For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When God is Enuf. Once you are in the seat for a Perry production, it can't be long before somebody onstage or on camera breaks out in joyful gospel song.
On the other hand, the most memorable song in a Lee film is "Da Butt" — definitely not for church ladies. Although Lee did take a dip in the river of soul with "A Change is Gonna Come" in Malcolm X.
Still, I think there is room in the cultural coliseum for Spike and Tyler, not to mention many others. And we definitely need women in that mix. For me the big question is whether it's possible for any man to write, direct and produce this work and get it right. Aku Kadogo, director of the black theater program at Wayne State University, provides a reality check.
"I feel two ways about it," says Kadogo, who played Lady in Yellow in the original off-Broadway and Broadway productions of the play starting in 1976. "Tyler Perry is also a medicine man. He offers laughter; at this time we need to laugh. If we don't laugh we are lost as a group of people. The literati have issues with him. ... We don't get enough variety of anything. For one, he has the money to bring it to light. It takes money to do these things."
Ah, filthy lucre, Perry's trump card! Bolton's Black Snob reports that Lee's films have garnered $372 million over 23 years, including $88 million on the mainstream The Inside Man with Denzel Washington and Jody Foster. Take that one away and you're in Tyler Perry land. And Perry has grossed his $319 million in just seven years. Say what you want, but black folks are voting with their hard-earned money.
The big question, though, is what he will do with this work that has meant so much to so many women over the years? That's what has folks bouncing off the walls. For Colored Girls has sparked such controversy over the years — even counter-productions written by angry black men — that almost anyone giving it a try was going to raise eyebrows.
Kadogo, a native Detroiter, met Shange in dance class in New York, and was recruited for the original bare-bones, off-Broadway presentation of her poems.
"I had no idea what it was going to be, that it was going to become a classic work in the theater canon. It's a classic American work now," she says.
And what makes a classic a classic is that people still want to experience it — in this case 33 years after it first burst forth. And even though life has changed for many since then, the play delves deeply enough into the female psyche to speak across generations. How will that translate to a Perry film? I suspect the new production will feel like a couple of other black female ensemble films: One is Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place, the 1982 novel turned into a made-for-TV movie in 1989 by Oprah Winfrey; the other is Waiting to Exhale, the 1995 film directed by Forest Whitaker and based on Terry McMillan's novel.
"I don't know if it's going to work today," says Kadogo. "It was poetry, it was a choreopoem; it was a specific form in the theater. That was the beauty of it, that's what was so gorgeous about it. I'm perplexed because I don't know how it will work as a film. Is that the story that should be told now? Are there other stories? What is the story of now? It's hard to know, and I stand in the middle about Tyler Perry's work."
I like Perry's work. It's entertainment, and I enjoy being entertained. Shange has signed off on the project. So it seems she'll get what she asked for in the opening statement of her original work. "Somebody/anybody sing a black girl's song," pled the Lady in Brown.
Madea would get up and sing her own damn song.
Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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