Emmitt Perry Jr was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on September 13, 1969. He was a middle child, with two older sisters and a younger brother. According to Margena A. Christian in Jet, “He says that he endured years of abuse as a child by his father ‘whose answer to everything was to beat it out of you.’
Perry says he would ‘go places in his mind’ following beatings.” At one point, unable to take it anymore Perry attempted to kill himself, slashing his wrists in an action that he has called a cry for attention. “I was pretty young and totally frustrated,” he told Christian. After the incident he happened to be watching The Oprah Winfrey Show and heard about how sometimes troubles in life could be worked through if you wrote them down—a form of release that could be very cathartic and therapeutic. Perry gave it a try and discovered that he not only liked it, but that he was good at it, too. His first writings were in the form of letters to himself. Through them he came to terms with his childhood and even brought himself to the point where he could forgive his father for all the anguish, he caused Perry’s family. Perry was quoted by Zondra Hughes in Ebony as having said, “The things that I went through as a kid were horrendous. And I carried that into my adult life. I didn’t have a catharsis for my childhood pain, most of us don’t, and until I learned how to forgive those people and let it go, I was unhappy.” With a newfound skill and a more positive attitude, Perry was ready to take on his future.
He wrote the musical I Know I’ve Been Changed based on those letters he had written in his journal to himself. According to the Tyler Perry website, “Because of having put all of his eggs in one basket, Tyler would eventually find himself homeless on one or more occasions over the following six years.” Through it all, however, Perry kept up his spirits through his faith and his seemingly endless belief that things would turn out all right in the end. At one point he had saved up $12,000 and rented a theatre to put on his show. It took a lot of courage to put everything he had into a play that was not guaranteed to be successful, but Perry had a dream and he figured if he was going to succeed at it, he would have to give the endeavor his all. Unfortunately, the gamble did not pay off, and I Know I’ve Been Changed failed horribly. Only 30 people showed up the first weekend to see the play.
But Perry was not ready to give up yet. For six years he took on a slew of odd jobs in order to keep the show running, while sometimes living on the street because he could not afford to pay rent.
The play, however, despite all the effort Perry put behind it, continued to do poorly. He was just starting to think about quitting and giving the whole writing career up when he decided to do one last show so that he could say that he had really given it a try. The play opened at the House of Blues in Atlanta, Georgia, in the summer of 1998 and sold out eight times in a row. Two weeks later, the play moved to the Fox Theater in the same city where it also continued to sell out—this time selling out a much larger arena, since the Fox featured around 4,000 seats. Perry was flabbergasted. And that was not the end of the show’s success. I Know I’ve Been Changed went on to gross several million dollars. It also brought the world of African-American theater into a more favorable light with theatre goers and critics alike. Once known by the rather derogatory term “Chitlin Circuit,” African-American theater started to be called “urban theater,” something that Perry and his play had a lot to do with.
Perry began receiving messages from many fans of the play who wrote that his show had changed their lives, encouraged them to confront problems with their past and other members of their family, and helped with the healing process. The play went on tour for the 1998-1999 season to cities like Washington D.C., New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Miami, and Dallas. In all locations the show played to sellout crowds. Perry was becoming a household name in African-American communities across the country. The success of Perry’s first play opened the doors to a whole new world that Perry was eager to enter. Bishop T. D. Jakes came to one of the shows in Dallas and immediately afterward invited Perry to become involved in the play Woman, Thou Art Loosed. a project Jakes had been working on and looking to find someone to help with. Perry agreed to do so as long as he was allowed to rewrite the play, produce it, and direct it, not for arrogant reasons but because he had learned to work that way. Jakes gave him his go ahead; when the show opened in 1999 it met with great success. It made more than $5 million in just five months.
In 2000 Perry opened the play I Can Do Bad All By Myself. By this time Perry’s name on a play guaranteed that it would sell well within certain markets and this play opened to rave reviews and sold-out shows in New York, Washington D.C., Memphis, Chicago, Atlanta, and New Orleans. Perry played one of the roles, a character named Madea Simmons, himself. Madea was a 68-year-old grandmother with a smart aleck mouth and a larger-than- life personality who audiences found hilarious. In 2001 Perry was nominated for the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Lead Actor for this role.
He next worked on another musical with Jakes which was called Behind Closed Doors. It was the first Broadway gospel show of its kind, and it met with success equal to Woman, Thou Art Loosed. Perry was nominated for an NAACP Theatre Award for his production of the musical.
He next worked on the play Diary of a Mad Black Woman, which opened in New Orleans to a full house in January of 2001. One thing that was different
about this production was that the ending to the play changed; how it ended depended on the night it was seen. It was an interesting idea and one that audiences loved. The play was about Helen whose husband kicked her out of their house right before their 18th wedding anniversary so that his longtime mistress and their child could move in. The Madea character was in this play, too, and again Perry took on the role for the play. In 2002, with audiences clamoring to see more of the character Madea, Perry wrote the play Madea’s Family Reunion in which Perry again took on the role and toured all over the country. The character and her plays were so popular that in 2003 Perry wrote Madea’s Class Reunion.
It was in 2005, however, that Perry got his foot in the door in Hollywood. Perry’s script to Diary of a Mad Black Woman was purchased for a film which
was released in February of that year. Called “a mix of broad comedy, soapy drama, social commentary, and earnest spiritualism” by Entertainment Weekly ‘s Gregory Kirschling, the movie was a hit. It earned $22 million in the United States and Canada in its opening weekend. At the box office, the movie even beat such films as the Will Smith romantic comedy Hitch and the horror film Cursed, both of which analysts had thought would sweep the market. The movie moved Perry from a well-known figure in the African- American community to a playwright known by all ethnicities. Also, in 2005 Perry opened a new play: A Jazz Man’s Blues. The play is the story of a male jazz singer who falls in love with a woman who wants a better life than the musician can give her. It was set in New Orleans in 1947.
Because of the demand to see more of Madea, in 2005 publishers vied to have Perry write a book from Madea’s perspective. The proposed book would offer comic advice to African-American women. It was scheduled for publication in 2006 and be titled Don’t Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings: Madea’s Uninhibited Commentaries on Love and Life.
When asked why Perry’s works have been so successful, the playwright always puts it down to a non-traditional approach to storytelling. “I was never interested in learning the ‘traditional’ way to put together a play because I felt that would take away from the realness found in urban theaters.… People
who understand the formalities of theater are caught off guard by my plays because they break all the rules,” he told the New York Times ‘ Cole. Whatever the case may be, Perry definitely knows how to connect with his audience; they love his honesty and humor.
With all the success of his plays and movies it is needless to say that Perry is no longer homeless. He had a house built in Georgia that would show to the world that anything was possible if you only dreamed big enough, stuck to it, and had faith that God would provide. “I wanted this house to be vast. I wanted to make a statement, not in any grand or boastful way, but to let people know what God can do when you believe. I don’t care how low you go, there’s an opposite of low, and as low as I went, I wanted to go that much higher. And if there was an opposite of homelessness, I wanted to find it,” Perry told Ebony ‘s Hughes.
As of March of 2005, Perry’s plays had grossed more than $75 million in tickets and DVD sales. The Internet Movie Database quoted Perry as having said, “I know my audience, and they’re not people that the studios know anything about.” If sales are any indication, this statement would seem to be true. And equally true is that audiences across the country are waiting to see what Perry will do next.
• Emmitt Perry Jr was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on September 13, 1969.
• He wrote the musical I Know I’ve Been Changed based on those letters he had written in his journal to himself.
• It was in 2005, however, that Perry got his foot in the door in Hollywood. Perry’s script to Diary of a Mad Black Woman was purchased for a film which
was released in February of that year.
Thank you to the New York Tristate Owner and Operators Association for your continued support of the Black Community.
All featured faces of Black History are not captured in the 2021 theatre production.