Monday, March 2, 2009

Play Review--Madea's Class Reunion by Tyler Perry

Madea’s Class Reunion
written and directed by Tyler Perry
starring Tyler Perry, Terrell Carter, Chantell D. Christopher, Chandra Currelley-Young, D’Wayne Gardner, Anselmo Gordon, David Mann, Tamela J. Mann, Judy Peterson, Cheryl Pepsii Riley, Pamela Taylor

In this 2003 stage play Tyler Perry employs a hotel setting to tell a story about deceit, trauma, and the first agonizing steps toward overcoming personal adversity. Through it all lies the power to forgiveness, to say to one’s enemies that they no longer have you by the throat.

The titular reunion really amounts to very little as half of the class is dead and two are in nursing homes. It takes up very little of the film and comes across as an afterthought without any lasting significance.

Again, this is a deeply spiritual work that explores the nature of human weakness through several characters who have fallen into a chasm of their own devising. These are broken folks who have fallen very far from God and the play makes it clear that they need to reconnect with the Lord if they are ever to be free of the agonies that have beset them. Chief amongst these characters is Stephanie (Riley) who is being brutalized by the father of her child, a pimp named Horace (Gardner) who prostitutes her leaving her terrified and wavering. This is typical of the kind of relationship Perry likes to dissect. It constitutes an essentially heroic feminine figure who has been led into darkness by an unruly man who simply wants to exploit her for his own ends. Throughout the play Stephanie struggles mightily within herself to gain the courage to extricate herself from this man who has treated her so callously for so long.

This play features a new character played by Tyler Perry. Dr. Willy Leroy Jones is a pure troublemaker who begins to work for the hotel as a bellboy and bartender. He’s much better suited to running his mouth which he proceeds to do for the duration of his appearance. He’s like a male, younger, thinner version of Madea and prone to the same wistful flights of fancy that in this play conjure up the ghosts of “The Color Purple” and “Good Times” among others.

Madea is really big on Whitney Houston in this play as she warbles through several of the singer’s songs throughout. She’s also big on laying out the law regarding domestic violence and the measures women ought to take should they find themselves beaten by a man. These are moments of clarity that allow Perry to effectively preach to his audience about a number of life’s ills that befall the unwitting and the ill prepared. They are moments where the pulpit is most visible and Perry takes the opportunity to stick in social commentary which is always a latent aspect of his plays and only occasionally overtly expressed so openly.

In this play marriage is again tested through the characters of Cory (Carter) and Trina (Taylor) Jeffery. She cheated on him and cannot understand why he cannot forgive her. The play focuses much of it’s effort on promoting the idea that forgiveness is the most essential ingredient to any life. It suggests that without it there is no causes for living. Trina and Cory represent the terrible aspect of forgiveness as it is actually lived by people who are forced to deal with it in a very real sense.

There is a tremendous amount of heavy negativity threatening to corrupt this farce that features Mr. Leroy Brown (David Mann) at his lunatic best. Mann is an exceptional performer who despite his corpulent state can do the splits and contort his body with the best of them. This is one of his most memorable performances and it livens up every scene because Brown is just so absolutely off his nut. He’s a buffoon who is infinitely likable which is a testament to Mann’s ability to fully engage the audience and to bring them into his realm of crazed antics. The play needs Brown to show up in his ill-fitting, glaringly menacing outfits to add a dose of easy comedy to the proceedings. Without Brown Madea loses a bit of her immediacy because so much of what she says is at Brown’s expense. They play so perfectly off one another in the classic sense of great comedic teams who take insult into the heady realm of the sublime.

The play features some of the best songs to be found in any Tyler Perry production. There is a ferocity to these performances that cause them to stand out for me. There is anger here that some of the earlier numbers have lacked and each song is very much a dagger straight into the heart. One doesn’t have to be a Christian to be emotionally impacted by the power of these songs. They hit very hard and it takes a while to recover from their intensity. In this play Perry perfectly melds song and acting together in a cohesive whole that is breathtaking to witness. Sometimes in other works the music only proves to be an annoyance, a momentary respite between Madea’s hysterical yammerings. But here they seem vital and necessary. There is a kick to them, a driving insistence that carries them across to the audience.

Tyler Perry has devised a system that allows him to produce works that are both emotionally edifying, spiritually uplifting, and devastatingly funny. He’s pretty much cornered the market on theatrical experiences that combine all of these aspects. He has created a character with so much blistering charisma and acute naughtiness that she has become an internationally renowned symbol of coarse, brutal truth and fearlessness. Madea releases pent up frustrations and angers through aptly timed insults that are tempered with great parochial wisdom that always seems to get to the heart of the matter.

Here we have interwoven scenarios which play for high melodrama and intense emotional outbursts that often take the form of song. There is a lot of pleading to God in this film that delves deeply into the core of what this play is attempting to convey to its audience. God is paramount to every note, every utterance, and Perry ensures that the audience will go home with a clear cut message about the importance of maintaining a healthy relationship to Christ above all things. Certainly, the message in this play feels heavy handed at times to non-believers but to those who truly engage with Christianity it is profound in both its simplicity and its application.

Overall, this play captures all of the elements that go into creating an effective Tyler Perry production. It features top notch songs, a strong narrative that is occasionally nuanced in its presentation, and terrific performances that resonate throughout. It combines big laughs with a serious story involving terrible emotional aspects that ring true. The characters mostly come off as real people attempting to work through various agonies that insistently torment their lives, working to cast the sufferer head long into a ditch. It’s one of Perry’s more satisfying productions and he manages to work in themes that audiences everywhere will have no hard time identifying with.

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