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The key to the Tyler Perry mythos isn't that he talks to God, but that God answers back.
Before he ever really got started, Perry was ready to quit. Back in 1998, he faced evictions and joblessness while struggling to succeed in urban theater — what used to be known as the "chitlin circuit" of African-American plays that would tour in nontraditional venues like music clubs and civic centers. From the beginning, he focused on writing and performing his own work to an underserved niche, rather than following the more conventional path of writing or acting for other people.
He penned his first play, I Know I Been Changed, at 19 after watching an "Oprah" episode about the therapeutic qualities of writing. Not long after he prayed for guidance in his writing, he drove his Hyundai with a leaky radiator from his native New Orleans to Atlanta for Freaknik in 1991 and was dumbstruck by the contrast between the two cities. "I saw black people doing well, which was something I'd never seen before," he recalls. "I'd never seen black families in a car, going to dinner or movies. [Atlanta] was the Promised Land. It was like 'You mean, I can do well there?'"
"Doing well" turned out to be no sure thing. Perry first presented I Know I Been Changed to near-empty houses at the 14th Street Playhouse in 1992. After six years of underwhelming runs, Perry was making a final attempt to stage it at the Tabernacle in Atlanta. Friend and actress Chandra Currelly recalls that before the curtain went up in the chilly theater, Perry told the cast, "This is the last one. It's not working out."
At that moment, Perry silently prayed, angrily vowing to quit theater. As he later recalled in one of the online letters he regularly writes to his fans: "In the middle of my rant I heard Him. IIIII HHEEAARRD HIIIMMM!!!!! He said to me, 'I AM GOD. YOU DON'T TELL ME WHEN IT'S OVER. I TELL YOU WHEN IT'S OVER, AND THIS IS THE BEGINNING.'"
Perry heard the voice say, "Get up and look out of the window."
And then, Currelly says, "That's when we all went to the window, and people were lined up around the corner."
For such an intensely private man, some of Perry's rare television interviews have illustrated the darkest, most personal episodes of his childhood. "When you're a public person you have a responsibility," he says. "If you have information that may help others, you have a responsibility to do that."
Perry grew up in New Orleans, but had an experience sharply different from the Crescent City's reputation as a Creole-flavored melting pot of diversity. "Do not go over there," he remembers his mother, Willie Maxine Perry, telling him as a child. "We did not cross certain streets, like St. Charles Avenue, where the white people were. Growing up, I didn't know any white people. In the whole six-block radius, it was all black people."
Perry admits that his largely segregated upbringing is reflected in his work, especially the plays and early films, which seem aimed at a specific African-American audience. "When I say I'm speaking to the culture, I'm speaking to my own experiences," he says. "It's fascinating to me that Oprah, who went to an integrated school, and Will Smith, who went to a mixed school, how their thinking is so open — that everybody is everybody. But for me, I had to open my mind to see it, because I was always taught, 'You are different, because you're black.'"
Growing up with no money or promise of escape, he faced a harrowing home life. According to Perry, his father, carpenter Emmitt Perry, physically abused him and his three siblings. The filmmaker even changed his name from Emmitt Perry Jr. to distance himself from his dad.
On "Oprah" and through postings on his message board at TylerPerry.com, he's shared tales of being beaten with a vacuum cleaner hose and other brutal episodes. And following the 2009 release of the film Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire, which he co-produced, he revealed that, as a child, he suffered sexual abuse from adults in his community, including a man he knew from church.
On "Oprah" in 2010, he explained that during his father's most abusive moments in his childhood, he would mentally escape to a local park he'd visited with his mother and aunt Jerry, whom he's cited as his inspiration for Madea. "It was such a good day," Perry explained, "that every time somebody was doing something to me that was horrible, that was awful, I could go to this park in my mind until it was over."
Perry's films often feature ugly episodes of child and spousal abuse, but he also mines them for humor, as when Madea threatens to beat unruly kids with belts. Perry doesn't see a contradiction. "I come from the school where, you did something wrong, you get your ass whupped," he says. "My father would beat me, but my mother would whup my ass. For somebody like her, it was about correction and love. It wasn't about abuse. In this society today, where everything's politically correct, it's very difficult to make jokes about these things, but I think the culture understands."