If success really is the sweetest revenge, anyone who ever did anything wrong to Tyler Perry better recognize that the score has officially been settled—and he has upwards of $65 million in earnings on his side of the scoreboard.
Sweet revenge indeed.
But perhaps what is sweetest is that Perry himself is not at all about vengeance or payback; he’s about giving back, giving thanks and forgiving those who’ve done him wrong. Think that sounds a little too good to be true? Think again. This thirty-six-year-old actor, playwright, producer, director and CEO of his own multimillion-dollar company is a walking testimonial to the redemptive and regenerative power of two mighty little “f” words: “faith” and “forgive.”
Raised in poverty in New Orleans and subjected to a childhood of constant abuse at the hands of his physically present but emotionally distant father, Perry grew into an unhappy young man whose life was shrouded by anger and resentment.
“My experiences as a kid were horrendous,” he says. “And I carried all that pain into my adult life.” It wasn’t until he was nearly thirty years old that Perry finally began to heal. “I was watching Oprah one day and she suggested writing in a journal as a way to let go of the past,” he recalls. He took Oprah’s advice and began a series of journal entries detailing his painful childhood experiences. What he wrote eventually became his first play, I Know I’ve Been Changed, a hilarious and inspiring musical about adult survivors of child abuse who confront their abusers and ultimately find healing.
The experience was cathartic for Perry, who was finally able to let go of the anger and bitterness that had held his spirit captive. “I learned real forgiveness,” he explains. “That deep-down forgiveness where you don’t hold grudges anymore.”
Believing that God was calling him to share what he had written with others in need of healing, Perry saved twelve thousand dollars, relocated to Atlanta, and rented a theater where he produced, directed and starred in the first theatrical offering of I Know I’ve Been Changed. Thirty people showed up during the entire weekend run of the play. Perry was beyond devastated. He had quit his job and spent his life savings to do what he was sure God wanted—only to find himself penniless and living on the street. “I asked God if quitting my job was the right thing, and I heard him telling me yes. I clearly heard his voice telling me ‘go out and do this play and it’ll be okay.’”
After the dismal failure of the play, what followed for Perry was a period of homelessness during which his main priority became easing his hunger and finding a safe place to sleep each night. “I didn’t hear from God during that time, and that was the darkest for me,” he recalls. “I was so angry; I was so mad at God for leading me out there and then leaving me.”
Refusing to yield to anger and doubt, Perry ignored the pleas of friends and family to give up on his play and “get a real job.” For the next six years he continued to pursue what he still believed was God’s will, working a number of odd jobs to finance his play and drifting in and out of homelessness when he couldn’t raise enough money to pay rent. Finally in 1998, Perry staged a production of his musical at the House of Blues in Atlanta and the venue sold out eight times over. Two weeks later he presented the play at the 4,500-seat Fox Theater and sold out that venue twice. Changed went on to gross several million dollars, and to this day Perry receives mail from fans around the country who say they’ve experienced healing through his words—something he always knew his play had the power to do.
“Of course, I understand now what that was,” he says of the time he spent suffering and struggling to bring his work to life. “God was preparing me for all that was to come.” All that was to come is Perry’s characteristically humble way of referring to the enormous success he has achieved since that bleak period in his life. Over the last seven years he has written, produced, directed and owns all rights to the seven hit plays that have broken box office records across the country and grossed more than $50 million. On his Web site, www.tylerperry.com, fans can purchase videos and DVDs of the plays—another lucrative arm of Perry’s business that brings in several million dollars per year. With titles like I Can Do Bad All By Myself, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Madea’s Family Reunion, Madea’s Class Reunion, and his latest play, Madea Goes to Jail, Perry has attracted a following of staunch supporters who stand in line again and again and place their names on DVD waiting lists to experience his unique and controversial brand of urban theater.
Especially popular with Perry’s fans is his stage portrayal of Madea Simmons, a 68-year-old grandmother who packs a pistol in her purse, smokes marijuana, and says she’ll consider going to church “when they get a smoking section.” Donning a housedress, fake breasts, and a healthy coating of Maybelline, the six-foot-five Perry delights audiences with Madea’s crude and raucous sense of humor. In between cussing, fussing and embarrassing her loved ones, Madea offers lessons on self-esteem, parenting, forgiveness and faith in God.
Madea’s fans will be happy to know that she is making her February 25 feature film debut in the screen adaptation of Perry’s wildly popular play Diary of a Mad Black Woman. The film stars Kimberly Elise, Shemar Moore, Steve Harris, Cicely Tyson and, of course, Tyler Perry, who plays three characters. The movie, directed by Darren Grant, weaves together a brilliant mix of drama and comedy to tell the story of Helen McCarter (Kimberly Elise), who is dumped by her husband after 18 years of marriage and must fight the urge to exact revenge. It is a hilarious and ultimately, heartwarming story of marital betrayal, forgiveness, self-love, and the importance of family.
Bypassing the Hollywood studios, who were put off by the title and too eager to modify the storyline, Perry teamed up with producer Reuben Canon (who brought audiences the film version of T.D. Jake’s Woman Thou Art Loosed) to ensure that Diary stayed true to its themes of forgiveness and redemption. “I own my brand,” says Perry of his experience meeting with studio execs, “They want to put me in a room with a bunch of people who don’t look like me and write for me? There’s no amount of money that’s going to make me walk away from the thing that I know works. This is my calling—to speak to an entire generation. That’s a huge responsibility and I’ve got to protect it and keep it.”
Perry knows the power to say “no” to Hollywood money is rare for urban filmmakers, and he gives full credit for that power to that 68-year-old grandmother named Madea. “Madea’s fan base…put pressure on me to stay real,” he explains. Though Madea is fictional, there is no doubt that she represents a real influence on the man who created her. “Madea is my mother, my aunt and all the women in my life who loved me enough to speak their minds,” says Tyler. “She teaches us how to forgive; how to let things go and how to move on.”
When it comes to forgiving and moving on Tyler Perry has definitely taken Madea’s advice to heart. He now lives in a lavishly decorated, $5 million mansion surrounded by perfectly manicured grounds complete with two secluded prayer gardens. And when it comes to prayer, Perry says he has learned a powerful lesson about how to approach God with his needs. “I don’t ask God for anything. I stopped asking for things a long time ago. Even when people come to me and ask me to pray for them, my prayer for them is, ‘God, let your will be done.’”
Of his extravagant home, Perry says he believes his house should make a statement to those who doubt the power of faith and forgiveness. “I want people to know what God can do when you believe.” Despite the luxury surrounding him, Perry says he has never lost his commitment to love, touch and heal others. “Cicely Tyson said something to me I will never forget,” he offers humbly, ‘When the thing you do starts to serve you more than it serves the people—you are no longer a servant.’” Asked if he is proud of himself, Tyler responds calmly, “I’m proud of the body of work I’ve produced. I’m still working on me.”