For years, Tyler Perry was snubbed by critics. He wasn’t invited to theater gatherings and his plays were ignored by awards committees as low-brow buffoonery.

He rebuffed his critics and continued to write and produce plays that tackle themes which he’s familiar with: faith, family, heartache, love and redemption — all mixed up with humor.

Today, the 36-year-old mogul-in-the making is one of the most successful black playwrights in the country. The second movie based on his stage plays, Madea’s Family Reunion, is No. 1 at the box office, having grossed an impressive $30 million its opening weekend. He was recently honored at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Theatre Awards, with the prestigious Trailblazer Award, and is a sought-after speaker.

But what Perry says he hopes most will come from his new celebrity is a rebirth of the black theater and a respect for the controversial urban theater circuit.

“It’s great for an organization that has been about traditional theater to recognize what I do as legitimate,” said Perry, after accepting the NAACP’s Trailblazer Award. “I hope this inspires others to listen to the people.”

History of urban theater

Urban theater can trace its roots to the early 1900s, when African American performers were barred from working at white theaters, staying at white-owned hotels and eating at white restaurants. Quasi-touring companies like the Theater Owners Booking Association, which became known as the chitlin’ circuit, took black singers, musicians, comedians and other performers across the country. Sandra Shannon, professor of African American literature, criticism and drama at Howard University, says the performances were low-budget, “vaudevillian” in nature and for mostly black audiences. The careers of artists like Ethel Waters, Ma Rainey and Sammy Davis Jr. were launched on this circuit.

The popularity of the circuit faded in the 1960s as the civil rights movement opened doors for black performers. The movement gave birth to plays like Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, which is considered a classic by traditional theatergoers.

“This era gave birth to many great playwrights,” said Shannon, citing the legendary August Wilson, who died last year of cancer, as one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century. Wilson received the Pulitzer Prize for two of his plays: Fences and The Piano Lesson.

The modern era of the so-called chitlin’ circuit emerged in the 1980s under the name “urban theater circuit.” Some of the earliest plays include Mama I Want to Sing, Beauty Shop and Diary of a Black Man. As in the past, this revived genre relied on the participation of largely black audiences. They take pride in being “off-Broadway” and in theaters in black communities across the country. Simple plots, sometimes bawdy comedy, gospel music and moral lessons borrowed from the church are staples. Popular performers like Malik Yoba, Kelly Price and Gerald Levert, who often appear on the stage between albums and television acting jobs, have also improved the production value of these plays.

“I take pride in that my plays mirror the lives of everyday people,” says David E. Talbert, an award-winning playwright who produced the first of his 12 urban theater plays, Tellin’It Like It Tiz, in 1992. Tellin’ It was a look at relationships through the eyes of four women working in a clothing store and four men hanging out in the local barbershop.

Tyler Perry makes his mark

Perry came on the scene in 1992. He wrote, produced, directed and starred in his first play, I Know I’ve Been Changed, which was in part based on his experience overcoming physical and emotional abuse as a child growing up in New Orleans.

The first run of the play failed, with only 30 people showing up the first weekend. Perry went back to the drawing board, developing his brand, marketing and raising money to produce the play again.

Finally, in the summer of 1998, Perry financed the production once again.

I Know I’ve Been Changed opened at the House of Blues in Atlanta and sold out eight times. Two weeks later, the play was moved to the prestigious Fox Theater and sold out 9,000 more seats.

This marked a turning point for Perry and the urban theater circuit. He has become the king of urban theater by not only producing entertaining stage plays but by tapping into the underserved black, Christian community.

He took his plays on the road throughout the country, promoting them like concerts: black radio, black media at churches, beauty shops and by word of mouth. He launched a Web site and began selling copies of his stage plays via the Internet. So far, Perry has produced 10 plays — including two he adapted from Bishop T.D. Jakes’ works. Seeing 16,000 to 25,000 people a week, Perry has developed a faithful following across the country.

“He touches your heart, mind and soul,” says Flonisha Dames, a 33-year-old preschool teacher from Moorpark who has been a fan of Perry’s since seeing Madea’s Class Reunion.

Hollywood comes calling

Perry owes his successful transition from stage to the big screen to his fans. The playwright’s agents sent the script for Diary of a Mad Black Woman, one of Perry’s most successful touring plays, to Lions Gate production president Mike Paseornek in an effort to land a movie deal. Paseornek says he didn’t know who Perry was until he asked some of his African-American co-workers.

“They all knew who he was,” recalls Paseornek. “He was the best-kept secret in Hollywood.”

The Hollywood executive was so impressed by Perry’s work and the devotion of his fans that the studio offered to back the picture. Diary of a Mad Black Woman, which was made for $5.4 million, opened last year and grossed more than $50 million, and that does not include the more than three million DVDs sold. Days after the opening of the film, Lions Gate went further, purchasing the distribution rights to Perry’s entire video catalog. The studio signed Perry for a multi-picture deal, establishing him as a “franchise” for the company. Those close to Perry say his plays have grossed over $100 million in ticket sales.

Critics dislike stereotypes

Despite his commercial success and popularity, Perry and others in the urban theater genre have been dogged by criticism from some blacks in the traditional theater. Because of the stereotypes and simplistic plots, many black intellectuals contend that this kind of theater is not “legitimate” and is an insult to the intelligence and culture of African Americans.

They say characters like Madea Simmons, the pistol-packing matriarch in Madea’s Family Reunion, is a stereotype of the domineering, masculine black woman. Madea, which is a contraction of “Mother Dear,” a term of endearment for some older, female family members in the black community, is played in drag (and a fat suit) by the playwright himself. But Perry argues that his characters are based on real people and the real life experiences of people. He told Essence magazine that the tough-talking, no-nonsense but nurturing matriarch was inspired by a combination of his “nurturing” mother and “tough” aunt.

“There is a lot of buffoonery,” says Larry Leon Hamlin, veteran writer, producer and actor and founder of the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C., about Tyler’s plays and the urban theater circuit. “There is a point when you pass comedy to another area.”

New Federal Theatre founder Woodie King Jr., who has presented over 150 productions during its 30 year history, says he’s not impressed by Perry and many of the creators of the urban theater genre. He says their work is “self-serving” and does not benefit the community overall.

Perry, however, doesn’t give much weight to the criticism. “Instead of looking down their nose at it [urban theater], I wish they would embrace it,” he said, during a quick interview. 

Future of black theater

Supporters of urban theater say Perry has provided new opportunities and fueled an interest in black theater, which has been struggling for years because of cuts in private and federal arts funding and dwindling audiences. In 1998, the late August Wilson helped to convene a conference of the leading black theater artists, scholars and community organizers at Dartmouth College to discuss the future of African-American theater and funding.

“I think there is room for other artists out there,” says Paseornek, who acknowledged that the black theater audience is a lucrative, underserved market that could put millions of dollars in the pockets of artists and studios. He says there is crossover appeal for mainstream audiences, as well.

Oxnard graphic artist Kelcey Newman was inspired by the success of Talbert and Perry and plans to launch the Web site, Allthatdrama.com this summer as a news and information resource on the urban theater industry.

“Urban theater has grown beyond the inner city and continues to grow nationally, and soon internationally,” said Newman, who has been a fan of urban theater since the 1980s. “My purpose is to create a trusted, accessible space of shared information and an event calendar.”

Even critics like Hamlin, whose events attract thousands of artists and performers to North Carolina during a week-long celebration of black theater, credits the urban theater circuit with “bringing people to the theater that never came before.”

Talbert says black theater has to evolve to survive. He successfully crossed over into television in 1997 with his play, He Say … She Say … But What Does GOD Say. It was adapted into the UPN sitcom Good News. It since has been cancelled, but the playwright has gone on to write two books and recently co-produced Jamie Foxx’s NBC-TV special, Unpredictable: A Musical Journey.

“We (urban theater) are doing exactly what W.E.B. DuBois told us to do,” laments Talbert. The 1920s scholar and activist said black theater should be by us, about us and near us.