If you’re planning to see Tyler Perry’s new play when it comes to Atlanta in April, you need to be on time.
Be. On. Time.
“Sit the hell down!” Perry barked at late arrivals Tuesday night, breaking from character seconds after his entrance during the play’s stop in Macon. “Seven o’clock is seven o’clock, people! People have spent their hard-earned money to be here, and you can’t be on time.”
He was just getting started.
“Front and center. That tells me you got your ticket early, but you’re late getting here!” he bellowed at some poor unfortunate soul with cursedly good seats, pulling the prop gun from Madea’s handbag for emphasis. In a final swipe at tardiness he singled out a man who had the double bad luck to be both late and bald.
“Your head is shining like aluminum foil,” Perry shouted. “Sit the hell down!”
Moments later he tossed a box of tissues to an usher and directed that they be passed to a couple of women sitting a few rows from the stage.
“Take the gum out of your mouth,” he instructed. “You and your momma. I know that’s your momma cause y’all look alike. That’s just rude. I can’t remember the lines as it is and y’all are sitting there popping gum. And I want my tissues back!”
So began the first Georgia tour stop for “Madea’s Big Happy Family,” Perry’s first play in five years.
Written as a tribute to his late mother, the plot is simple, without a drop of subtlety. That leaves plenty of room for lots of Perry improv, to the delight of fans who have been waiting years to see him live.
The play begins as family matriarch Shirley, played by Chandra Currelley, learns the cancer she’s been fighting has become more aggressive, leaving her only a matter of weeks. With the help of Madea and sassy Aunt Bam, played by Cassi Davis, Shirley assembles her family, from dutiful daughter Joyce, played by Cheryl “Pepsii” Riley to the sticky fingered Uncle Monroe, played by Palmer Williams Jr.
A devout Christian, Shirley wants them all together so she can say goodbye on a strong note of faith but first, of course, everyone must work out their drama. The action is interspersed with powerful vocal performances and the second act meanders into a medley of old-school R&B songs.
The after-funeral scene is where Perry/Madea really gets revved up, dispensing advice on love, forgiveness and responsibility. It’s hard to detect how much is scripted. Reviews following performances in other cities suggest the show is never quite the same two nights in a row, and that Perry seems to be workshopping and performing at the same time. The seemingly spontaneous “Pants on the Ground” riff that turned up during Tuesday night’s sold-out performance at the Macon Coliseum got a mention in the Raleigh News & Observer following the play’s stop there earlier this month, for example.
“Since I’m ad-libbing,” Perry said at one point, and then launched into a mini-sermon on how people should deal with the aftermath of taking out interest-only mortgages and then suffering when the economy tanked, which he’s done elsewhere, too.
“You’ve been worrying, going to church praying about it,” Perry said. “God has sent me here with your answer: Move!”
Perry’s representatives say he has not given interviews since the December passing of his mother, Willie Maxine Perry, but more than half of Tuesday’s three-hour performance felt like a direct dialogue with the audience. At the end of the show he came onstage in a black suit and spoke for several minutes about dealing with her death, the power of faith and the importance of philanthropy. He has announced a $1 million pledge to Haiti and said he’ll travel there personally once media attention wanes. He’s accepting fans’ donations through his Web site as well.
“If you want to make your dreams come true, make someone else’s dream come true,” he said. “There is one thing you never get punished for. Giving.”
Madea’s Big Happy Family
8 p.m. April 15 and 16, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. April 17 and 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. April 18 at the Fox Theatre. (Be on time!)
Tickets from $41.55 to $142.75