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Madea goes to Northwestern: Tyler Perry gets an academic once-over

Tyler Perry | Phoby KevWinter/Getty Images

Tyler Perry | Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

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‘MADEA’S BIG SCHOLARLY ROUNDTABLE’

When: Wednesday

Where: Screenings of “Madea’s Family Reunion” (9:30 a.m.) and “The Family That Preys” (1 p.m.) at Annie May Swift Auditorium, 1920 Campus Dr., Evanston, followed by a 5 p.m. panel discussion at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, 40 Arts Circle Dr.

Admission: Free

Info: (847) 491-4000; www.blockmuseum.norththwestern. edu

Updated: December 27, 2012 6:08AM



Madea, the pot-smoking, gun-toting, blunt-speaking, cross-dressed grandmother created by Tyler Perry, has gone to the theater.

She’s gone to the movies.

She’s gone to television.

Now, she going to Northwestern.

On Wednesday, the Big Ten’s academic powerhouse is hosting a symposium titled “Madea’s Big Scholarly Roundtable: Perspectives on the Media of Tyler Perry.” It’s hardcore scholarship focused on Perry and his most famous character, Madea, by the university’s Block Cinema and the School of Communication’s Department of Radio/TV/Film.

While Perry’s “The Family That Preys” and “Madea Goes to Jail” are not usually mentioned alongside “Citizen Kane” or “Wings of Desire,” the lowbrow nature of much of his widely popular fare doesn’t mean that academics shouldn’t analyze it, said Miriam Petty, who teaches the class “Tyler Perry” at Northwestern and organized the event.

“We’re interested in what the popularity reveals about this country,” Petty said. “Why is he so popular?”

Forbes’ highest-paid man in entertainment for 2011, Perry, 42, started writing two decades ago after watching an episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” about therapeutic journaling. After a few failed attempts, in the late 1990s he found success in the theater, drawing large black audiences to his shows primarily through Madea, whom he plays in drag.

“Madea” (no relation to the Euripides Greek tragedy “Medea”) is shorthand for “mother dear.”

“Particularly in Southern black families, an elderly black woman is called Madea,” said E. Patrick Johnson, a Northwestern professor who teaches in both the School of Communication and Department of African-American Studies. “These women are held in high esteem. They’re like the sage of the family, but they also don’t sugarcoat any kind of advice they give to you. They can say things other people in the family can’t say.”

Petty called Madea “really, really central in a lot of ways to [Perry’s] success and his fame.”

“Part of the reason Madea is so popular is because of the significance of elders and female elders in the African-American community,” she said. “Perry has tapped into that. On one hand, the elder figure in Madea is always doing things for someone else. But also she’s sarcastic, crazy, unpredictable.”

Forbes estimated in 2005 that Perry’s plays had sold more than $100 million in tickets and $20 million in merchandise. That same year, when his first movie, “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” was released, a National Public Radio reporter called Perry the country’s “most successful unknown playwright.”

He wasn’t unknown to his loyal fans who bought movie tickets by the truckload. “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” produced with a $5.5 million budget, raked in $50.6 million, including nearly $22 million on opening weekend. His next film, 2006’s “Madea’s Family Reunion,” opened at No. 1 and grossed $30.3 million on its first weekend.

Perry, who built his own movie studio in Atlanta, promoted “Madea’s Family Reunion” on Winfrey’s show. The two forged a friendship, partially built on painful shared histories of childhood abuse. They also started a business relationship, both becoming executive producers of the Oscar-winning “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire.”

Perry, the director/writer/producer and sometimes actor of the television shows “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne” and “Meet the Browns,” announced in October he would be creating television content exclusively for OWN, Winfrey’s struggling cable network.

Despite the unequivocal financial success of his work, Johnson said it was easy for academics to dismiss Perry’s movies, plays and television shows as schlock.

“So many of us in the academy have really ignored Tyler Perry because we didn’t feel it was worthy,” he said. “It was just, ‘Oh, this isn’t really good theater, not a good film, so why are we even talking about?’ ”

Perry cannot be ignored, Johnson said.

“He has an impact on our culture whether we like it or not,” Johnson said. “The work is reaching people in ways other kinds of film or theater are not. As academics we need to try to understand what it is about the message that these plays and these films have that taps into a particular ethos of working-class African-Americans.”

Petty said the discussion will address Perry’s relationship to race, gender, sexuality, African-American Christian churches and class.

Academics from Duke, Rutgers and other universities will be participating in the event, which is free and open to the public.

“Cultural studies is all about studying what’s popular,” Petty said. “There was a time no one thought you should study any film. We study them now because we’re interested in the cultural moment out of which they emerged. We’re interested in what the popularity reveals about this country.”



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