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Wall Street Journal


Madea and Her Methods

May 27, 2006

By John H. McWhorter

At a Christmas party a few years ago, my cousin asked me: "Do you like Medea?" For a minute I was a bit confused, since it didn't seem to be the occasion for sharing our impressions of Greek mythology. But it turned out that my cousin was talking about Madea, the massive, loud-mouthed, pistol-packing black grandmother whom Tyler Perry embodies, in drag, in a series of "chitlin' circuit" touring shows.

Mr. Perry sells DVDs of the shows online, and 10 minutes after my cousin put one on I was hooked. I'm not alone. Madea is black America's latest phenom, and Mr. Perry took "her" to a crossover level last year with a popular, bull's-eye film version of one of the shows, "Diary of a Mad Black Woman." Everything Mr. Perry touches seems to turn to gold: His book of Madea's wit and wisdom, "Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings," is a best seller. Of course Mr. Perry is now planning to launch a sitcom, and at the rate he is going he'll be running for president in 2012.

The live shows are one part raucous comedy à la "Sanford & Son," one part musical (mostly gospelly power ballads written by Mr. Perry himself) and another part life lessons (the stock characters in Mr. Perry's monologues include evil womanizers and young women going wrong). Madea brings it all together. One minute she is the pot-smoking ex-stripper who lives on the life insurance from a series of mysteriously deceased husbands, always ready with her pistol when things get out of hand.

Another minute she is the fount of grandmotherly wisdom. In "Don't Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings," Mr. Perry tells us that Madea is a resuscitation of the "old head" who used to anchor black communities although no longer, thanks to the crack epidemic and other urban nightmares. The latest show, "Madea Goes to Jail" (which recently played in New York), included a 20-minute time-out with Madea dispensing salty life advice, much of which is down for the ages in this book.

It's an odd book in its way—pages and pages of mother wit from a 36-year-old man. Earlier in his life Mr. Perry was disowned by his family and homeless—so he has said in various interviews—and he now wants to pass on what he has learned about survival. But to preach as himself would sound sanctimonious: His message gets through more effectively when served up with comedic hijinks. Yet it's one thing to watch Mr. Perry playing Madea as she tosses off homilies in bits and pieces, another to read a whole book written by a male author full of comments on things like the effects of gravity on large breasts and what a gynecological exam feels like.

Still, Mr. Perry pulls it off. Interestingly, most of the book comes right out of Bill Cosby's more traditionalist playbook. Madea had her first child at 16 and now preaches abstinence. "The only way you can be special is to hold out," she says, adding: "If you're just so hot that you've got to get some, then what the hell is wrong with a condom?" She gets her licks in on the idea among some black teens that doing well in school is "white": "It's not acting white. It's acting like you got some sense!" She wishes black people would open more small businesses in inner cities and refuses to hate immigrants who open them instead.

Madea knows that the black community cannot wait for the Establishment to save it: "There come a time and place when you'll have a say and you can change things." Make no mistake—Madea shares the black community's skepticism of President Bush. But if Mr. Perry worked for a think tank and wrote op-eds, he would be considered the latest black conservative. When filtered through Madea such supposedly "right wing" thinking on race becomes mere common sense.

To be sure, some of Mr. Perry's assumptions may not translate perfectly to white readers. What whites often think of as obese Madea thinks of as sensual. She tells us to eat what we want and let the pounds pile up. Her advice on child-rearing includes spanking (more precisely, "Whup that ass!")—hardly a common way of thinking even among feminism-skeptics like Caitlin Flanagan and her admirers. But then my mother's grounding in that tradition persuaded me to stop talking back to my teachers. Overall, "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" is best read with the Madea character's voice and physicality in mind. Those who haven't caught the live shows or DVDs may wonder what the fuss is about.

The fuss is genuine—and significant. Mr. Perry's popularity may represent a tipping point in the race debate. Mr. Cosby is too grouchy to reach the unconverted, and perhaps the message is more effective coming from a woman (or "woman"); the warmly maternal is preferable to the sternly paternal.

In the African-American section of a bookstore you can always find advice books with messages like Mr. Perry's, written by wise, concerned black people who have triumphed over the odds. The other day, when I was waiting at a barbershop and reading Mr. Perry's book, one such author recognized me from a TV appearance and told me about her books. And indeed, her work is right on the money. But I had to think to myself that this sage woman, with her excellent message, will never achieve the reach that a beloved performer like Mr. Perry can. As it happened, behind me in the women's half of the shop, a plus-sized 20-something black woman had been sounding off loudly to her friends on life, love and dieting. She reminded me quite a bit of you know who. And wouldn't you know, one of her friends said: "Now you're sounding like Madea!" Madea was in the house, and Hallelujah.

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