“Still Playin Wid Dem Barbie Dolls? Never Mind, Don’t Answer That”: Tyler Perry’s Stage as a Lonely Place for Black Queers
Timothy S. Lyle
In this project, I address Perry’s sexual politics and his oppressive tendencies towards black queers by asking about Perry’s conflicted admixture of homoeroticism and heterosexism in some of his earliest plays to the current moment. Though Perry often centralizes and engages in homoerotic moments onstage as Madea (Perry in drag) sexualizes hypermasculine, shirtless young men on stage, he still manages to insert moments of oppressive dialogue and to privilege taken-for-granted heteronormativity in thematics of his fictive world. As I attempt to reveal why Perry’s stage is a lonely place for black queers, I look to Perry’s characterization of his first presumably black queer character in the stage version Madea’s Family Reunion. I examine Perry’s aesthetic and political choices concerning the staging and dialogue spoken by this character as well as the comments made about, around, and to this character from other dramatic players.
My chief objectives are to illustrate how Perry toys with a dialectic of oppression and activism and to uncover the double-bind faced by black queers on Perry’s stage or in his audience—that of acting as cultural inspiration for the marrow of Perry’s dramaturgy and functioning as the object of scrutiny, contingent tolerance, and non-reciprocal humor. Ultimately, I aim to highlight the complicated nature of Perry’s discourse concerning blackness and queerness to spotlight how he dramatizes a few of the fundamental dilemmas facing Black queer men in the African American community
Though scholars have only started to measure Tyler Perry’s import as a cultural figure, an industry expert, and a political mouthpiece, his early work as a dramatist matters immensely in mediating on dynamics of blackness and queerness on the black American stage in the twenty-first century. In an earlier project,I probed the politics of Perry’s performative drag acts to ask complicated questions about his ostensible feminist stance (Lyle 2011), but with this current rumination, I hope to extend my scope to address Perry’s sexual politics and his oppressive tendencies towards black queers. If careful readers of Perry’s work recognize and interrogate the fact that Perry is in drag for much of his dramatic corpus —an act so heavily centralized in affirmative queer subcultures—we might ask complex questions about Perry’s conflicted admixture of homoeroticism and heterosexism in some of his earliest plays to the current moment. Though Perry often centralizes and engages in homoerotic moments onstage as Madea sexualizes hypermasculine, shirtless young men on stage, he still manages to insert moments of oppressive dialogue and to privilege taken-for-granted heteronormativity in thematics of his fictive world.
Attempting to reveal why Perry’s stage is a lonely place for black queers, I look to Perry’s characterization of his first presumably black queer character in the stage version of Madea’s Family Reunion (2002). I examine Perry’s aesthetic and political choices concerning staging and dialogue spoken about, around, and to this character from other dramatic players. Finally, I couple this characterization of black queerness in Family Reunion with Perry’s peripheral references to non-normative sexual expressions and gender identities in his other productions to theorize about how Perry contributes to a discourse concerning black queers.
My chief objectives in investigating Perry’s treatment of his first presumably black queer character is to illustrate how he toys with a dialectic of oppression and activism and to uncover the double-bind faced by black queers on Perry’s stage or in his audience—that of acting as cultural inspiration for the marrow of Perry’s dramaturgy and of functioning as the object of scrutiny, contingent tolerance, and non-reciprocal humor. What follows does not seek to brand Perry as a phobic artist per se; rather, I aim to point to the complicated nature of his discourse concerning blackness and queerness to illuminate how he dramatizes a few of the fundamental dilemmas facing black queer folks in the African American community—dilemmas deftly described by some of the earliest self-identified black gay male critics and prominent black feminists, especially dilemmas surrounding family, grudging acceptance, and the silence imperative. Influenced by Essex Hemphill’s notion of “coming home” and all the layered negotiations that process might require, I discuss how Perry sustains the problematic realities that the black queer faces while residing at the intersections of the politics of race, sexuality, and community-building. Additionally, borrowing from Patricia Hill Collins and bell hooks, I argue that if Perry is attempting to offer empowering messages of communal healing and education about blackness and queerness, he must first recognize how he sustains a debilitating view of black queers—fueling a problematic black sexual politics that is exclusionary and oppressive.
Even though 2014 welcomed an entire collection devoted to Perry’s work—Interpreting Tyler Perry: Perspectives on Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality—black queerness in his corpus remains glaringly insignificant to scholarly inquiry. Indeed, Patrice Harris has a specific chapter on “Prolific Stereotypes of Black Men,” but black queerness never emerges as part of the conversation (2014, 212). Similarly, in Amber Johnson’s “(Mis)Representations of Black Sexuality,” Perry’s own possible queerness takes central focus, while his deployment of black queerness in his fictive world is absent. Surprisingly, in the subsection not focused on sexuality, Bryant Alexander offers a sharp analysis of performance studies and Madea’s Family Reunion, and he succeeds in offering a paragraph about black queerness, though his analysis makes the need for the sustained study I offer herein more pressing.
Within the first five minutes of Family Reunion, we are introduced to Perry’s first presumably black queer character, Mike. Before Mike ever appears onstage and before audience members are able to form their own conclusions, Madea and Vickie, Mike’s mother, discuss his childhood behavior and how that behavior serves as a marker of his adult sexuality. Sitting on the front porch, Madea, situated above Vickie and looking down in her direction, questions her about her sons, particularly Mike, her youngest son. As she continues her inquiry, Madea fires off a round of questions to which she apparently already has the answers. Assuming the position of the knower and the educator, Madea asks, “how yo’ youngest one, Mike, doin’... he still playin’ wit ‘dem Barbie dolls.” As Vickie nervously defends her son’s behavior, she argues, “oh, no, he grew out of that.” Then Madea goes on to deliver the punch line: “oh, he playin’ with Ken now” (Madea’s Family Reunion 2002).
This exchange serves nicely as an entrance point for an investigation of how Perry handles questions of black queerness. Even if one does not make the immediate connection that Madea is equating Mike’s childhood toy selections and his behavioral choices with his adult sexuality, she explicitly goes on to ask when Mike is getting married. And then she puts forth the notion that obviously he never will. With this dialogue, Perry proffers a dangerous and inaccurate conflation of gender and sexuality that has been debunked by queer and gender theorists alike. By characterizing Mike as a child who made the “wrong” gendered choice for a toy selection and by labeling him as same-sex loving, Perry delivers the stereotypical characterization of the effeminate queer male. Moreover, he equates same-sex eroticism with some sort of gender deviance—a failed black masculinity. Because authentic, heterosexual boys would not play with Barbie, Mike must be of another ilk. He must be playing with Ken, which would place him in a substandard category of othered maleness: the bitch or the punk.
In her examination of the possibility of queer children, Eve Sedgwick has commented on and theorized about the consistent, obdurate tendency to collapse gender and sexuality. As she notes quite deliberately in “How to Bring Your Kids up Gay” (1993), this tendency is not only a social habit but also has institutional implementations. During the very same year that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from a list of pathologized disorders (1973), they added “Core Identity Disorder of Childhood” to their diagnosis manual (DSM IV), which labels nonconformist children as being in danger of developing psychopathologies. According to Sedgwick, CID is the failure to develop a core identity that is consistent with the gendered behavioral expectations attributed to one’s biological sex. For example, “boys who display a preoccupation with female stereotypical activities as manifested by a preference for either cross-dressing or simulating female attire, or by [having] compelling desire to participate in the games and past times of girls” suffer from a CID that must be diagnosed and treated (Sedgwick 1993). Sedgwick argues that this implementation is part of a conceptual shift to eradicate the formation of more same-sex loving folks. As she explores the links between gay adults and gender noncomforming kids, Sedgwick argues that the decision to remove homosexuality (in adults) from the list of pathologized disorders and to replace it with CID in childhood was motivated by the notion that society can manage the existing adult same-sex desiring individuals so long as there are not more in the making. The only thing more unsettling than the existence of adult same-sex loving people is the threat that there are more on the horizon. As Madea’s reasoning and the audience’s approval (laughter and applause) illustrate, this conflation of gender and sexuality has not changed very much in the popular imagination and continues to infiltrate popular culture and inform the public about sexuality.
Perhaps more important than Madea’s dangerous conflation is Vickie’s reaction. She adamantly refutes any non-normative behavior in Mike’s adulthood and assumes a defensive posture to assert her son’s masculinity and, thus, his heterosexuality and “authentic” blackness. If Mike is indeed a black queer male, whether effeminate or not, Vickie does not care to acknowledge that part of her son’s being; rather, she hopes that he will marry “really soon” (Family Reunion 2002). Though the reference to Mike is quick and meant to be humorous, we will learn that Perry is not done with the ridiculing of this character for comedic effect.
The audience neither hears anything else about Mike nor sees him onstage until he appears in the final scenes of the play. As one of the many guests at the family reunion, Mike appears already seated at the picnic table in the background of the scene. He receives no entrance or introduction scene like almost every other character in the play enjoys. He appears in a bright- blue crocheted hat, a matching blue graphic tee shirt, designer sunglasses, an earring, and a necklace. It is obvious that Perry is capitalizing on the semiotics of clothing to dramatize Mike’s presumable queerness. Intelligibility is key at this moment. He is characterized in a very fashion-forward manner (in stark contrast to the other characters), and the audience is supposed to recognize him as an effeminate black male who must be Mike. The only other men who are characterized as fashion-conscious constantly announce their heterosexuality to the audience (Jackie’s “date” comes to mind) to assuage any concerns about potential queerness. According to Collins, “stereotyping black gay men as effeminate and weak, even though the majority of black gay men do not fit this profile, becomes an important factor in constantly asserting black male heterosexuality” (Collins 2005,192). In Western binary logic concerning sexuality, a logic that has been internalized in large part by the African American community as well, the construction and maintenance of heterosexuality is entirely contingent on derogating and demonizing queerness. Because Perry employs a stereotypical image of a black queer and juxtaposes him with other heterosexual men in the play, he believes that the audience can read Mike by his difference. The audience members know him as the opposite of the other men in the play.
Within the first few moments of this scene, Madea addresses Mike by changing her entire demeanor. She elevates her voice and uses gentle hand gestures to welcome Mike to the family reunion as if he is a soft, delicate object to handle. The only thing that matters about Mike is whether or not he is still playing with those Barbie dolls. He is not even privy to the “hello, how have you been” series of questions that one might characteristically address to an estranged family member. Interestingly enough, Madea poses only one question to Mike, and it is the same question that she posed to Vickie during the earlier portion of the drama: still playin’ wit ‘dem Barbie dolls? But Madea does not even give him the opportunity to answer the question; instead, she quickly adds, “don’t answer that” (Family Reunion 2002). If we follow the metaphor of the Barbie doll and if we recognize the equation of Mike’s gendered behaviors to his adult sexuality, then, subsequently, we realize that Madea’s silencing of Mike has vast political significance. What she actually does in that moment is orders Mike to remain silent about his suspected sexual practices.
Even though Mike is permitted admission to the family reunion, he is not allowed to speak at all; and if he were, he would certainly not be able to speak about his sexuality. As a matter of fact, Mike is one of four characters who have no dialogue, and he is the only character always spoken of and ridiculed but never allowed to speak for himself— emblematic of the silence endured by queer persons throughout history, particularly queers of color. Because dialogue reigns supreme in theatre, Perry’s aesthetic (and political) choice is crucial. As Collins has observed, “representations of black masculinity of the ‘punk,’ ‘the sissy,’ or the ‘faggot’ offer up an effeminate and derogated black masculinity” (Collins 2005,171). Moreover, we must realize that this derogated image of black masculinity is directly tied to notions of a devalued femininity; the male “bitch” could easily be added to Collins’s list of pejorative characterizations. Perry waters this image down a little bit, but he still offers up a similar critique of the male who plays with Barbie dolls (or who is queer).
The family reunion scene is the moment in which the dialectic between oppression and activism seems to be the clearest in relation to Perry’s treatment of black queerness. Perry writes Mike into the family reunion scene, a scene in which he attempts to present a diverse,
problematic, yet unified, African American community. Though Madea’s family has problems, the reunion is emblematic of inclusion and togetherness. Madea even tells Ronnie as she is half- heartedly berating him that her family is a family that is full of opportunities but is a solid unit of community. Without any other knowledge about his character, audiences are left to assume that Mike’s “problem” is one of queerness. And his inclusion in this familial support structure is completely contingent upon a few rules: he must function only as an object of ridicule, and he must always obey the silence imperative. In short, Mike is welcome at the family reunion only if he takes the heterosexist punches and never assumes the position of subject who announces his truths. And, interestingly enough, queerness is never brought into language as a term by anyone throughout the course of the play; rather, the issue can be addressed only through metaphors of toy selection (read: sexual object choice).
As Alexander argues, “during the reunion, the grown-up Mike is made present on stage sheepishly cleaving to his mother as Madea/Perry once again makes the homophobic slur reinforcing, in not so subtle ways, larger issues of homophobia in the Black community” (2014, 19). While tempting, I am not convinced that Perry’s treatment of this character can be read as entirely phobic, though. It appears as if Perry is attempting to be more progressive with his inclusion of this character and with his broader thematic of communal togetherness, but he seems to be constrained by his audience’s expectations—ones that are fueled by a specific cultural belief system concerning gender and sexuality. Moreover, perhaps he is himself constrained by his subscription to the rhetoric offered by the black church and his internalization of a rigid, oppressive black sexual politics (and gender ideology). I join Collins in pointing out that “too much is at stake...to ignore sexuality and its connections to oppressions of race, class, gender, and age any longer” (2005,114). A progressive black sexual politics involves a deliberate questioning of hyper-heterosexuality as the marker of an authentic or valid black masculinity. If we recognize that no art, whether humorous or otherwise, can be divorced from its political commentary and its sociopolitical consequences, we must ask Perry and others “how can any black political agenda that does not take all of these systems into account, including sexuality, ever hopes to adequately to address the needs of black people as a collectivity?” (2005,115). But regardless of how Perry’s progressive agenda falls flat, it is interesting to note how the reader can observe the complicated tension between activism and oppression and the way he dramatizes some crucial components of the black queer experience, an experience riddled with tension and negotiations.
In Brother to Brother: Writings by Black Gay Men (1991), Hemphill and Joseph Beam begin to theorize about the precarious position that black queer men occupy both in the African American community and in the larger queer community. Describing a process that is so commonly referred to as “coming out” in so many of the discourses concerning queer communities, Hemphill discusses a version of “coming out” that is distinctly African American as a “coming home” of sorts. Instead of conceptualizing a “coming out” process that involves a familial separation and a movement into an alternative queer community, Hemphill and Beam describe a process of “coming home” that involves, ironically enough, a family reunion of sorts.
According to several of the contributors to this volume of writing by self-identified black gay men, their presence and their unique gifts are not valued in the larger (white) queer community. Moreover, rarely do the members of the larger queer community consider the specific goals or interests of the black queer in their larger political or social agendas. As Collins, hooks, and several black gay critics have observed, black queer men have rarely received attention from the larger queer community except as a sexual object to be consumed, objectified, and commodified. In short, several argue that he has one place in the larger queer community: that of the big black dick. Instead of “coming out,” which implies a possible separation from familial support structures, these writers imagine returning to the African American community. Hemphill and Beam conceptualize “coming home” as a reconciliation of their queerness and their blackness, two parts of identity construction that are so often at odds with each other. Black queer folks often want to come home to the African American community baring their queerness.
As Hemphill explains in his introduction, “we are a wandering tribe that needs to go home before home is gone....our mothers and fathers are waiting for us.... they will remain ignorant, misinformed, and lonely for us, and we for them, for as long as we stay away hiding in communities that have never really welcomed us or the gifts we bring” (Hemphill 1991, XX). In “Brother to Brother: Words from the Heart” (1986), Beam expands this notion of home further by noting, “when I speak of home, I mean not only the familial constellation from which I grew, but the entire black community...Where is my reflection? I am most often rendered invisible, perceived as a threat to the family, or I am tolerated if I am silent and inconspicuous. I cannot go home as who I am and that hurts me deeply” (Beam 1986, 231).
In Hemphill and Beam, we find a core dilemma that plagues black queer people—one that is dramatized in Perry’s treatment of Mike. If they are indeed devalued in the larger (white) queer community and are denied access to the fruits of the African American community because they refuse to subscribe to the silence imperative that demands speechlessness about same-sex eroticism, they face a fundamental dilemma that forces them to privilege either their sexuality or their blackness. Is there a negotiation possible? According to Marlon Riggs, black gay man is a triple negation. Writing about the links between homophobia and the construction of black masculinity, Riggs writes the following:
I am a Negro faggot, if I believe what movies, TV, and rap music say of me. My life is game for play. Because of my sexuality, I cannot be black. A strong, proud, “Afrocentric” black man is resolutely heterosexual, not even bisexual. Hence, I remain a Negro. My sexual difference is considered of no value; indeed, it’s a testament to weakness, passivity, and the absence of real guts—balls. Hence, I remain a sissy, punk, faggot [or bitch]. I cannot be a black gay man because, by the tenets of the black macho, black gay man is a triple negation. I am consigned, by these tenets, to remain a Negro faggot. And, as such, I am game for play, to be used, joked about, put down, beaten, slapped, and bashed, not just by illiterate homophobic thugs in the night but by black American culture’s best and brightest. (quoted in Collins2005)
Hemphill does not necessarily disagree with Riggs, but he offers up further explanation about why it might be necessary to endure ridicule. In response to the silence and pejorative treatment forced onto these individuals in the African American community, Hemphill discusses the dilemma with family, and he speculates about the necessity to absorb the substandard treatment offered by pointing out that “we cannot afford to be disconnected from these institutions, yet it would seem that we are willing to create and accept dysfunctional roles in them, roles of caricature, silence, and illusion. In truth, we are often forced into these roles to survive” (Hemphill 1991, xvii-xviii).
In addition to the pejorative characterization and substandard treatment of Mike in Madea’s Family Reunion, Madea constantly references the “tambourine player” in other dramas, the player being one who represents the “anything-but-that” abject, queer other. This characterization first appears in Perry’s I Can Do Bad All by Myself (2002), the play before Mike’s character appears in Family Reunion. In Bad, we see Perry toying with the notion of the tambourine player. He describes this person as a sensitive, effeminate man who wears his clothes tightly and loves bright, loud colors—not unrelated to the clothes the costuming team assigns to Mike’s character in Family Reunion. Moreover, the “tambourine player” talks (or shouts) in a high-pitched voice. Madea warns other women in the fictive world of Bad to watch out for the “nice, loving, sensitive man....so sensitive he a tambourine player” (I Can Do Bad All By Myself 2002). The first character who is criticized under this label is the character of Brown or Mr. Brown, Madea’s neighbor, even though Madea only ridicules Brown as a tambourine player for a few moments in the play; his connection to queerness is never supposed to be taken as seriously as Mike’s. And just in case audiences were concerned about Mr. Brown’s potential same-sex desires after Bad, Perry writes Brown’s family into the script of Family Reunion to reassert his heterosexuality.
Along with hooks, I speculate about whether or not this refutation of any same-sex desiring tendencies with regard to Brown is due to Brown’s position as the neighbor. Perhaps the idea that a black queer could be someone living next-door unbeknownst to his or her neighbor is a little too serious of a threat. Heteronormative safety is in distance. About this idea of distance, hooks asserts that “often when family members foolishly indulge in homophobic jokes and verbal gay- bashing, they assume that the gay person is a stranger, someone out there whom they will never know. The gay person is always with us—inside the home, a part of our family” (hooks 2001,206). The tambourine player is not only stereotyped as effeminate but also characterized as a clown, a buffoon, and a fool. If he is to be present and near the queer or “possible” queer must operate again as an object of ridicule and entertainment. Moreover, he is a figure who is not to be respected as intelligent or wise. There is a sense that Brown or the tambourine player is a little underdeveloped, which is a major tenet of phobic discourses in the medical field, in the social sciences, and in religious rhetoric. Extending his logic to its fullest conclusions, Perry even refers to Brown as a dead person in the play.
This continuing devaluation of queerness across Perry’s dramatic corpus is crucial to probe, especially when we place his oppressive tendencies towards black queers alongside an explication of his homoeroticism and his reliance on queer subculture for dramatic fodder. From the early moments of Bad onward, Perry simultaneously engages in explicitly homoerotic and heterosexist behavior. If the audience member pauses one minute to analyze the fact that the brother is in drag, his behavior becomes clearly homoerotic. As Madea talks about her ex-lover Herbert and as she throws herself onto the young Bobby, Perry centralizes several homoerotic moments into his fictive world, often forming the core of the play’s comedy. Not only does Madea continue to refer to Bobby as her baby’s daddy but she also channels mantras from familiar black popular culture and rap music. For example, as Madea approaches the towel- clad Bobby (shirtless, of course) and makes quite physical gestures to hint at some sort of sexual desire for Bobby, she channels lyrics from Snoop Dogg’s “Drop it Like It’s Hot,” Khia’s “My Neck, My Back,” and Juvenile’s “Back That (Ass) Thang Up.” Honestly, Madea actually follows Juvenile’s suggestion and backs that ass up in an attempt to welcome Bobby’s sexual advances. From this perspective, Perry is quite readily assuming the position for anal penetration from a hypermasculine male in the fictive world. When the reader couples Perry’s drag with all of the sexual comments, the sexual allusions, the sexual movements, and the exposed hypersexual, shirtless male body onstage, a homoerotic reading becomes possible. And if those not-so-subtle references do not convince the reader, she only has to consider the reason why Bobby is shirtless to begin with: he is looking for the soap. And why does Madea come into the scene? She comes into the scene to drop the soap. I am not sure that Perry could get much more deliberate with the way in which he characterizes a homoerotic scene, but just in case his readers did not get the allusion, Madea says to a running-scared Bobby that “boy, I can tell you’ve been in jail. You were scared as hell to bend over and pick up that soap” (Bad 2002). Though one could also comment on how Perry features hypersexual, shirtless men on stage to satiate his mostly female demographic, it is next to impossible to deny the blatant homoeroticism that Perry engages in so long as the audience member ascertains the fact that Perry is ultimately a man in a dress (and does not try to hide it). And this homoerotic flavor and influence both form the marrow of his drama and function as part of his continual effort to derogate queerness for a laugh.
Oftentimes, his reference to the tambourine player is lost on other characters, and Madea has to couple the metaphorical or coded reference with physical movements that are supposed to be characteristic of the effeminate gay male who flamboyantly rings the tambourine. This reference to the tambourine player becomes more significant as Perry develops his playwriting. Instead of simply being an object of homophobic ridicule, the tambourine player becomes an anything-but-that, abject other—that which must be expelled to reestablish boundaries of selfhood—a politically desirable selfhood. In later plays like Madea’s Class Reunion (2003), lines like “you ain’t a tambourine player, is you?” become more examples of how the differentiation from queerness becomes crucial for establishing the parameters around an authentic blackness and maleness—parameters that reach their height with Mike in Family Reunion. Robert Reid-Pharr, author of Black Gay Man (2001), has argued, “the homosexual, like the Jew, becomes in late-twentieth-century black American writing a vehicle by which to express the omnipresence of the specter of black boundarylessness” (Reid-Pharr 2001, 15). Perhaps Perry’s contradictory blend of phobic references to the tambourine player and homoerotic moments serves as another iteration of the dialectic of activism and oppression. This label itself, the tambourine player, has that very dialectic embedded in its relationship the black church’s contradictory stance towards same-sex desiring folks: hypervisibility and silence.
The “tambourine player” is symbolic of that character who embodies the mixture of contingent acceptance, silence, and oppression popular in African American communities, especially in heavily religious communities. He is the character in the church choir who everyone knows is queer but no one speaks of the sexual and political realities of this individual. The tambourine player or the choir director or any other individual that is widely known as queer is welcomed into most black churches so long as he obeys the silence imperative. It is almost as if the black church adopts a rhetoric of “hate the sin; don’t hate the sinner,” which some might argue is a remarkably more progressive opinion than those who excommunicate members and actively damn any members who are suspected of divergent, “perverse” sexual behavior. hooks and Collins have written extensively on the topic of homophobia in the African American community and have linked the need to eradicate homophobia to other social justice projects of racism and sexism. Both theorists have argued in one way or another that the black church has operated as an institution that preaches a politics of respectability that protects the African American community from accusations of an always-already insatiable, animalistic sexuality and for guarding the viability of the black family.
Because of queerness’ supposed sexual deviance and because of its assumed denial of a reproductive logic, the black church admonishes the behavior as a sexual deviance that means genocide for African American families. Moreover, “the black Church has also been partially reluctant to challenge Western arguments about sexuality and, instead, has incorporated dominant ideas...within its beliefs and practices” (Collins 2005, 183). Along the same lines, what Collins illuminates so clearly is that “the historical invisibility of LGBT[Q] African Americans reflects this double containment, both within the prison of racism that segregates black people in part due to their alleged sexual deviance of promiscuity and within the closet of heterosexism due to the alleged sexual deviancy of homosexuality” (2005, 107). Perry plays into this logic perfectly, especially when one considers how he formulates conversion narrative after conversion narrative and weaves in gospel tunes like “pray together, stay together” with the ideas of healthy communities, religious faith, and heterosexuality.
Even though Collins notes that “we [the African American community] need a black liberatory politics that affirms black lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender sexualities.... that understands the roles sexuality and gender play in reinforcing the oppression rooted in many black communities” (2005, 89), Perry cannot seem to actualize a fully liberating political stance in his treatment of black queers. hooks goes on further to assert that “were more black people willing to let go of the patriarchal mindset that stands in the way of love, homophobia could effectively be challenged and eradicated in our communities” (hooks 2001,202). Both Collins and hooks agree with Hemphill, Riggs, and Beam by noting that this derogation is linked to reasons why the African American community must closely examine the extent to which a failed gender ideology is fueling an oppressive black sexual politics.
K.B. Saine argues that Perry “sustains a desire to treat the entire range of social, moral, and political problems that face black people, both as a group and as individuals” (Saine 2005, 109). If this is the case, then I ask about the social, moral, and political predicaments of black queers and the mutually contaminating effects of phobic logics on the perpetuator and the victim. Because representations of black queerness are already so rare, the moments in Perry’s text seem all the more relevant and take on an added importance, especially considering his visibility and cultural capital. hooks and Collins have both commented on how a liberated black sexual politics and a critical investigation of black gender ideology are vital to any attempt to address communal health or any attempt to proffer messages that aim to assist black people as a collectivity. On this very issue, hooks notices that “...it must be continually stressed that our struggle against racism, our struggle to recover from oppression and exploitations, are inextricably linked to all struggles to resist domination” (hooks 1989,124). Perry must take into consideration the trials and tribulations of the black queer and recognize the vital role that these individuals play in black families, black churches, black artistic institutions, and in the community at large. Unfortunately, even though Perry is drawing heavily from the queer subcultural practice of drag, his stage is a lonely residence for the black queer who is looking to “come home” to a liberated space that fosters togetherness and community improvement. Not only is the black queer ridiculed and silenced, but also heteronormativity operates as the only option and continuously saves the day.
The only avenue that leads to genuine healing, forgiveness, personal fulfillment, and community for Perry is heterosexual marriage. In addition to displaying his oppressive tendencies with his treatment of Mike and his comments about the tambourine player in other dramas, Perry constantly privileges heteronormativity. Interestingly enough, after the scene in which Mike appears onstage in Family Reunion, Perry cuts to a marriage scene as if to cleanse the home of the black queer presence before curtain time. In this last scene, most of the characters are coupled up in a heterosexual arrangement, and they are all holding hands and singing, “a family that prays together, stays together” (Family Reunion 2002). This final scene seems to indicate that the only authentic members of the family are present at the wedding and holding hands together and singing as a unified, heteronormative family. Notably, Mike is completely omitted from the play at this point. Actually, after the family reunion scene, Madea urges the family members to come into the house to continue their fellowship, but, strangely, Mike’s body never makes it into the physical space of the home. He actually disappears from the scene and from the play with no other explanation.
Before his disappearance, we see him only in the background of the family reunion scene discussing something that we are not privy to with the Reverend and his mother. A perceptive audience member might assume that Mike is being subjected to some form of proselytizing
moment in which the church and the family are trying to pray the gay away. Importantly, though, we never hear Mike’s voice. Moreover, we never hear the Reverend or Vickie discussing his potential same-sex desires, if indeed that is what is being discussed. Regardless of the content of their discussion with Mike, though, he does not come into the home with the other family members. He makes it halfway: the backyard.
These spatial limitations reveal how Mike cannot actualize the complete notion of “coming home.” The reconciliation of one’s blackness and one’s queerness does not seem completely possible for Mike or for Perry’s artistic imagination. Mike’s acceptance, if one can call it that, or his inclusion in the familial space is limited and contingent. When he disappears from the play, he is seen again. And the marriage scene comes in to wash away (or cleanse) any of the play’s misfortunes, black queerness being a part of that list. Troublingly, Mike does not even appear at the curtain call when the other characters are brought onstage to take their bows and to receive the audience’s approbation. He is physically, verbally, and socio-politically absent. The actor who plays Mike is not even listed in the credits before the play begins or after the play ends. One might note that Mike is only a peripheral character in the play and that his absence is an industry standard for a minor character; however, I would then ask why Bryan, one of Jackie’s other love interests who appears onstage about the same amount of time as Mike, is not only glamorized onstage as a masculine, heterosexual male who has his shit together enough to date Jackie but he is also given the space to take a bow at the end of the performance and given name recognition in the play’s credits. The silence, contingent acceptance, and troubled visibility—the halfway-ness brought to life by Mike’s (in)visibility—transcends narrative time to inform extra-textual moments of the overall performance experience.
As the entire theatrical experience comes to a close and the cast members (most of them) have taken their bows, Perry takes off the dress, the wig, and the make-up, and he comes out to address the audience directly, announcing his “authentic” gender and his professed heterosexuality as well. This revelatory moment (or act of compulsory heterosexuality) is quite interesting. Perry does not leave the audience with Madea as the lasting image. Instead of leaving the audience with an image of their beloved Perry in drag (and sexing up other men in the fictive world), he “cleans up” and delivers himself as a Christian, heterosexual black man to his audience.
The cultural demand for heterosexuality is undeniable. Sporting his clean suit, his tie, and his cross around his neck, Perry speaks directly to the audience about their play-going experience. The safety provided by the fictional quality of the stage, a historically safer space for social transgression, is over. This fun is over. It is time to get serious. After the curtain call, Perry assumes his as role heterosexual male role in the conventional social narrative. This is one of the more telling parts of Perry’s artistic choices. Few playgoers see the playwright acting,
producing, directing, singing, and writing. But I suspect even fewer performances feature their playwright addressing the audience after each show to recap the night’s happenings. Here, Perry manages to insert yet another moment of artistic control as he oversees nearly all aspects of production. His speech to the audience reads very much like the following: in case you missed my not-so-subtle messages, I am going to spell them out for you before you walk out of that door and apply them to your lives.
Frankly, if some liken Perry’s style to "holdin’ church," he assumes the microphone in the pulpit—dressed in his Sunday’s finest quite like the preacher who is heading the congregation. In short, Perry goes to great lengths to ensure that he drives home very specific messages to his audience. He goes character by character to discuss why he wrote a certain character or plot, and he takes time to do networking and public relations for himself. He announces upcoming projects, discourages bootleggers, and advertises Tyler Perry.com. This is when Perry could have flexed his progressive muscles (if he has them) to centralize the issues of phobia in the African American community. But there are “no break[s] with stereotypes here. And, more importantly, no critical interrogation of the way in which these images perpetuate and maintain institutionalized homophobic domination” (hooks 1994, 18). Perry could have at least addressed his pejorative comments and made a cursory comment about how phobia is a serious issue that needs to be addressed, even though he might not be the one to discuss it. But just as the actor who plays Mike is missing from the stage bows, Perry sidesteps issue of queerness in favor of problems that face heterosexual couples only—demonstrating Johnson’s lamentation that “although…Perry…create[s] space for dialogue, the dialogue ensuing is not necessary productive in terms of sexual health in Black communities” (2014, 235).
The valuation of bodies is concretized as Perry morphs into the conservative preacher and abandons Mike to fend for himself. Unfortunately, by the time the entire theatre experience ends, Perry and his cast exit, the lights come up, the audience begins to file out into their daily lives, and the silence imperative continues. And the theoretical call for a liberating political stance that affirms black queer folks never makes it into a popular culture production, even though it is sorely needed. Despite the liberatory potential, the loneliness experienced by the black queer persists from Perry’s stage into the night.
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____ 2001.Salvation: Black people and love. New York : William Morrow.
___. 1989.Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. Boston: South End Press.
I Can Do Bad All By Myself.2002. Produced and directed by Tyler Perry. Atlanta: My.Te.Pe. Productions. DVD.
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Rheid-Pharr, Robert. 2001.Black Gay Man. New York: New York Univ. Press.
Saine, K.B. 2005. "The black American's Chitlin/Gospel/Urban Show: Tyler Perry and the Madea Plays."Theatre Symposium 13 (Fall): 105-115.
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Timothy S. Lyle is an Assistant Professor of African American Literature at Iona College. He earned his Ph.D. from Howard University in Washington, D.C. and his M.A. and B.A. from Georgia State University in Atlanta, GA. Dr. Lyle specializes in contemporary African American literature and culture, with a particular focus on the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and disability. He has most recently published “An Interview with Janet Mock” in Callaloo (38.3, Summer 2015), “‘Prolonging Last Call’: Jamaica Kincaid’s Voyeuristic Pleasures in My Brother” in The Journal of West Indian Literature (22.1, Nov. 2013) and “Check with Yo’ Man First; Check with Yo’ Man: Tyler Perry Appropriates Drag as a Tool to Re-circulate Patriarchal Ideology” in Callaloo (34.3, Summer 2011). His forthcoming book-length projects explore HIV/AIDS representations post-1997 through the lens of narrative pleasure and ethical responsibility and introduce the burgeoning literary histories of transgender women of color.