Though he usually abhors family get-togethers, Judge Bill Gibron thoroughly enjoyed this saucy, spiritual reunion by the biggest name in Urban Theater.
Once again, it's time for the Simmons family to get together. But this is no normal reunion. With one relative being buried and another getting married, Grandma Mabel "Madea" Simmons' (Tyler Perry, Diary of a Mad Black Woman) house is becoming a second home for the odd assortment of aunts, uncles, daughters, and nieces. Cora has her hands full raising two divergent daughters. It is Lisa who is walking down the aisle. But it's her other child Tina that's the bigger problem. An unwed mother who's hopelessly addicted to drugs, this brazen gal tries the patience of the entire Simmons crew.
Vickie is a successful college professor whose busy life seems antithetical to any interpersonal relationships. As a result, she is a lonely old busybody. Jackie, a young woman of substantial spirit, lives with out-of-work husband Kevin. The couple is devoted, yet she is always concerned that her man will return to his drug-dealing days. Next door are the Browns, nosy neighbors that Madea can't stand. As the family waits to meet Lisa's new man, old wounds are uncovered and secrets are revealed as the matriarch of the clan consistently reminds everyone who's boss. It wouldn't be Madea's Family Reunion any other way.
To understand Madea's Family Reunion, you have to understand the entertainment format being employed. To get insight into this particular form of stage production, you've got to understand Tyler Perry. Reading the information contained about him in his Web site bio, you get the impression of a troubled young man, led by the Lord to a calling. That he chose the pen and not the pulpit is unusual. Yet black religious culture has a long tradition of the sanctified showcase, a kind of part play, part prayer meeting mentality meant to inspire attendees to the Word, and to convert those yet unsaved. Like the revivals that tear into town, intent on spreading the Gospel and refilling the company coffers, these melodramas are predicated on scandalous, secular hot-button issues. Alcoholism, infidelity, drugs, and youthful defiance are drenched in heavy doses of the Good Book, hymnal classics are sung, and the entire theater is transformed into a kind of entertainment temple. As a race closely tied to spirituality, African-Americans in particular embrace this form of stage evangelism. It gives visual manifestation for many of their own struggles, as well as an equal indication of the inner strength they call upon to deal with them. And it's all done with deep pride and intense passion.
Perry's innovation was simple and ingenious. Not known for their level of humor, religious plays could be somber, sobering affairs. Tyler invented the character of Mabel "Madea" Simmons. Call her the ultimate Devil's advocate, or the voice of secularism smack dab in the middle of a Holy War, but Perry's purpose in bringing in the gun-toting, pot-smoking Grandma is to function as a doorway. This outrageously unrealistic character, about the worst drag act in the history of male/female comedy, resonates with the audience because of everything she stands for, and everything she says. African-American culture is highly matriarchal, and Madea is the ultimate reminder of the power and the presence of the mother/grandmother in the home. That Madea is like a wacky stand-up comedy act, filled with inappropriate one-liners and broad slapstick, is part of the design. The more he gets you laughing, the more Tyler's other, more important message about the Word of God will have a chance of sinking in.
Madea's Family Reunion is a great deal of fun—improbable, overdone, and arch—but a great deal of fun anyway. As did the Dolemite films of the blaxploitation era, Tyler creates an indelible image with the character of Madea. She is the Greek chorus, voice of both reason and ridicule, and never one to take matters lightly…or seriously. Onstage, she's the conductor, leading the long line of social problems—otherwise known as the characters in the show—through their meaningful machinations. A Bible-based epiphany always follows, but the truth is trotted out with as many jokes as bows to Job. True to their tent-meeting tenets, Perry productions are loaded with song, sung with such intensity and skill that you just know the residents of Heaven are listening in. Still, the inclusion of Madea's madwoman routine may appear inappropriate or wildly out of place to many, rendering something that is already borderline cartoonish completely over the top and hyper-real. Movies like Petey Wheatstraw and The Human Tornado often face a similar, albeit secular, disapproval. But unlike Rudy Ray Moore, Tyler Perry is not working blue or base. Instead, he wants to tweak the doctrines of religious theater to get the message to as many people as possible.
Perhaps this is where the critical attacks on Perry are the most misguided. Certainly anyone can complain about a character who represents several serious behavioral flaws, but to turn around and say Perry's characters condemn an entire race seems reckless. Perry is performing, and acting up. He is not out to make a serious social statement. There is no subtlety in Madea's Family Reunion, or any of the author's other work, for that matter (including the recently released, much reviled Diary of a Mad Black Woman). Perry is creating parables for a disconnected people, individuals who've lost their way because of both social and individual pressures. And honestly, what's going to sell more tickets? A stirring drama with devastating touches of reality, or a goofy lark that pits the Bible against a battleaxe? The answer seems obvious…as obvious as Madea's Family Reunion.
This is a sappy, silly sensation, so saccharine in its sentiments that a health warning should be posted on every playbill. Perry assembles a stellar cast, including many Christian music and Gospel recording artists, and he lets them wail with amazing grace. The songs here are all big-time ballad belters, and the cast delivers them with such fire that you feel the heat coming off the screen. The rest of the show is routine—set up problem, family falls into crisis, Madea cracks wise, the Bible is quoted, a familiar and pat solution arrives—nothing more or less. Perry is a bit of a situational hog. The Simmons just don't deal with drugs—there is spousal abuse, age-old molestation issues, parental neglect, sexual dysfunction, and even a touch of Alzheimer's Disease (in the elderly Mrs. Brown, not Madea). The comedy can be crude, made up of insults and outright attacks, and every emotion is set at simmer, just waiting for the proper cue to boil over. Still, Perry's exceptional company, as well as his own freewheeling turn as Madea, makes this hokum hard to hate. Certainly, some of the material here is hackneyed, but it's played with such conviction that you can't help but cheer it on.
If there is one major…excuse me, MAJOR!!!…flaw in the DVD presentation of this theatrical experience, it is that the audience is completely cut out of the offering. This, frankly, seems antithetical to the reason Perry and his presentations are such a hit. Urban Theater, as it is now being referred to (frankly, it's a lot better than the racially uncouth "Chitlin' Circuit") thrives on interaction and reaction. It's not a production, not a true revival, if the crowd is just a silent participant. The songs here are straight-ahead showstoppers, delivered in a manner not seen since Jennifer Holiday brought down the Broadway house nightly with her Dreamgirls ballad, "And I Am Telling You." You know the theater is just eating it up, drinking in every overdramatic note and reacting with true spiritual spasms. But we hear none of it. Likewise, when major scenes end, or a song starts to wind down, the screen simply fades out (sometimes in mid-thought or sentence) to make sure we don't hear the whooping and hollering from the crowd. It's sad, really. Seeing how much this presentation means to the audience is part of the power in these plays. Removing it is ridiculous, and does this DVD a grand disservice.
In all other ways, however, Lions Gate treats Perry's presentation with care and consideration. Even though this is a videotaped play, the 1.33:1 full frame image is sharp and clear. Obviously helmed by professionals who understood camera angles, framing, and composition, the transfer treats us, the home theater crowd, to a view the live audience could only have hoped for. Equally important is the translation of the music, and it has to be said, it is near perfect. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo soars with Gospel greatness. While the songs do have their limits (no one claimed Perry was the Smokey Robinson of spirituals), the performers deliver them with so much bravado that you can't help but feel their musical presence.
As for bonus features, the DVD is outfitted with a Tyler Perry introduction (all of 11 seconds long), a Tyler Perry featurette (10 minutes of background on who he is and how he came to be successful), and a Selected Scene Commentary track. Perry is informative, but the sparseness of the content (he only looks at five different sequences) makes it a real disappointment. The photo gallery is nice, and the trailers clue us in on the other Perry titles waiting to be explored. While it could have been much more (how about a little Q&A with the rest of the cast…) this is a decent digital package. Besides, as Shakespeare said, the play's the thing.
If you can remove yourself from the more understated and refined ideals of legitimate theater and get with the Bible-thumping enjoyment here, you'll really take pleasure in Madea's Family Reunion. Make no mistake, Tyler Perry is no Arthur Miller, or Neil Simon, or David Mamet. Instead, he is producing theater with a wholly pious purpose. Though it may not seem like it at first, there is a lot of God in Madea, and she may even get her message across to you—like it or not.
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