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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 20, 2005

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Paintings, Handel, Cookies

Tyler Perry, the jack-of-all-trades responsible for the movie Diary of a Mad Black Woman, brought his beloved character Madea to Greensboro last week in his new play, Madea Goes to Jail.

Except for a few dozen of us, white people pretty much had no idea that this event happened -- which is our loss, and nobody else's. Because, as Madea said at one point in the performance, "We're B.E.T." And if you don't know that stands for "Black Entertainment Television" you really aren't going to get any of the in-jokes.

Tyler Perry's Madea plays -- and, thanks to the success of the first one, now his Madea movies -- take place within black culture, for the African-American audience. Which is why Tyler Perry may be the most successful comic playwright in America today.

That would make him the true successor to Neil Simon. And the comparison is not inappropriate. Simon's plays, while more tightly constructed, lacking the kind of homemade raggedness that is much of the charm of Perry's offerings, are every bit as indebted to Jewish-American culture as Perry's are to African-American -- and it's worth pointing out that while all of America embraced plays (and movies) like The Odd Couple and Barefoot in the Park, they played first in New York, where the heaviest concentration of Jews outside of Israel embraced him and provided his core support.

Simon was able to reach the mainstream audience and delight us all because a generation of Jewish comedians had already accustomed us to the rhythms and ironies of Jewish speech and humor. His gags didn't sound foreign, they sounded American -- because we already knew the voice.

Well, Tyler Perry also gets to follow on the humor of generations of black comics. And white people who bother to go will find that the in-jokes are relatively few. As Madea stomps through the lives of her relatives, neighbors, recent acquaintances, and total strangers, pulling a gun out of her purse at appropriate moments and quoting nonexistent biblical verses at inappropriate ones, white people will find themselves laughing almost as often as the black people in the audience.

Here's the biggest difference: Simon deliberately kept Yiddish in-jokes out of his early comedies. Nobody is openly Jewish, even though everybody sounds as though they grew up in a house where Yiddish was spoken. Whereas it's not very likely that you could cast a play by Tyler Perry with white actors.

So even though most of the gags in Madea Goes to Jail are perfectly accessible to everybody, because they deal with human universals, the black audience absolutely knows that these plays are for them and about them, or at least about people they know. And we white people in the audience, even though we are enjoying ourselves enormously -- for there is not a scrap of racial hatred in these plays -- we also know that we are onlookers at someone else's story.

But so what? When I read Anna Karenina I'm also an onlooker, having never been Russian; you can't escape immersion in Russian culture when you read Tolstoi. But it is precisely by reading Tolstoi (and Dostoevski, and Pasternak,) that you become familiar enough with Russian culture to appreciate the books. The same thing is true of reading Jane Austen, whose culture is every bit as foreign to us now, and yet whose books are still completely readable because they contain their own explanation.

Tyler Perry performs the same service with his plays. If you enter the theatre white, you will leave just as white as you were -- but with a sense of having lived, for a time, inside that rich culture of African-Americans, full of the outrageous, truth-telling, ironically-self-restrained humor that was born of centuries of oppression and controlled fury and solidarity.

And one of the first things you realize is how deeply Christian this audience is. Oh, there are plenty of non-Christian blacks in America, and plenty of nominal, non-practicing Christians. But black culture is so steeped in Christianity that I doubt there are many native-born American blacks who aren't perfectly comfortable with the prayer-songs, sermons, and gospel ecstasies that provide much of the heart and much of the humor in this and all of Tyler Perry's plays.

That's why Perry is making millions in an era when so-called "mainstream" theatre has a hard time staying alive without government subsidies.

Think of it. Perry is writing plays for one of the historically poorest groups in American society, but it wasn't just rich black people in that theatre. People dug down deep to get into that theatre; and as the Madea movies come out, that audience won't have to dig quite so deeply to get that experience.

If you give people stories they believe in and care about, they will pay.

Perry himself seemed a little embarrassed about the fifty-dollar ticket price (though every seat cost the same -- no hierarchy of money in that audience). After the curtain call, he came out -- not dressed as Madea now -- and, along with promoting Madea's Family Reunion, a movie that will appear this coming February, he seemed to feel that he needed to, if not apologize for, then explain the ticket prices.

These actors have to be paid, he explained -- and paid well. (They deserved it. They could sing, they could act, they could move.) And he also donated a million dollars to the relief of stricken New Orleans.

But he didn't need to explain anything. Some people might grumble over the ticket price, but it's barely half the price of decent seats at any hit show in New York. Does the black audience mind that Tyler Perry is rich because of their ticket purchases? Of course not! They're proud of him. He took plays that nobody believed in except him and a bare handful of backers, and by taking them directly to the black audience, he made them the biggest money-making plays on the road in America.

My reviews are usually aimed at everybody. But the black audience doesn't need me to tell them about Tyler Perry. Back last year when I was first hearing about him, I couldn't find a black friend who didn't already know all about him, even if they hadn't actually seen his plays.

I'm writing to white people. I'm telling you that even though Tyler Perry doesn't need you, you need Tyler Perry. Because this is what theatre looks like when it's not just live, but alive. This is what it felt like when playwrights were virtually inventing theatre before the eyes of the Elizabethan audience; or perhaps it's more like when theatre was born as part of a religious festival in Greece: profound, tragic moral lessons salted with filthy, hilarious satyr plays, all in celebration of the gods.

And when the action of the play stops cold while Tyler Perry, as Madea, delivers some long riffs of eloquent and hilarious advice on everything from parenting to romance to friendship, the audience -- black and white -- is laughing and clapping and nodding in agreement. They -- we -- were there for the sermon as well as the silliness, and we all left the theater well satisfied.

I have white friends who think they have nothing in common with black people, who would have loved every moment of Madea Goes to Jail. They missed this play as it came through Greensboro ... but I hope they won't miss the next one.

*

I'm fussy about paintings and sculpture, and so is my wife. But not so fussy that our tastes never overlap -- in fact, we have collected so many pieces over the years that we cycle through our paintings so that our walls change with the seasons.

What we don't to, however, is "invest" in art. We're not even the tiniest bit interested in whether the work of a particular painter or sculptor is going to appreciate in value over time. We have no intention of selling it. And whether our heirs make money after we're dead is of no concern to us.

In fact, we hope our kids will love some of our paintings and prints so much that they, too, would never dream of parting with them.

Which is why we're just as happy to collect prints as originals. It's the image we want, the artistry, not the most-valuable-state. Why spend $20,000 on an original when I can look at the same image in the form of a print for a tiny fraction of that amount?

I couldn't live with having a work of art on my walls which cost enough to feed a village in Guatemala for a year.

There's an awful lot of art in the world, however, that I wouldn't own even if you paid me to take it. And plenty of galleries that specialize in providing an infinite supply of art that I loathe.

I can loathe it for being (or merely seeming) mass-produced; for being pretentious; for being ugly; or for being a cliche that I'm tired of. That doesn't mean that you have to agree with me. Or that I think you're "wrong" if you don't. Nobody should pretend to like art that they dislike, or pretend to dislike art that they love, merely to make the right impression on other people.

The art you surround yourself with is part of who you are. To live with art you don't love is empty. Better to hang mirrors everywhere. Or find a nice wallpaper.

Having said all that by way of preamble, let me tell you about a delightful gallery I happened to wander into while waiting for a haircut the other day. The Tyler White Gallery at 307 State Street was just setting up for their holiday show, "featuring new works by regional and national artists."

I usually enter galleries with low expectations, for the good reason that usually that's the only kind of expectation that is fulfilled. But to my happy surprise, there were many artists whose work was quite pleasing, and two that stood out enough that I had to bring my wife back so we could make sure we agreed on these pieces. (We did; they're ours now.)

One artist is Brian Hibbard, who lives here in Greensboro and has long supported himself doing portraits and residential murals. But that isn't what I saw on the wall at Tyler White.

He is doing a series of landscapes with an interesting palette of muted colors that include a strange, metallic brown that suggests copper. His trees and clouds are rimmed with slight shadowing that hints a little of almost a cartoon effect, so that it is at once representational and yet theatrical. I fell in love with all his work; and since I did my best to deplete the supply he had there, I left one of them behind till the show is over so you can see what he's doing.

The other artist that stood out for us was Linda James, whose paintings are done, in her words, "In praise and thanksgiving to God, the Father; Jesus, the Son; and the Holy Spirit for the gift of life and the love of art; I attempt to share His Word visually."

The result of such a sentiment could have been (and often is) really dreadful but sincere efforts; in her case, however, the sentiment is matched by work whose ethereal design and extraordinary colors are a genuinely worshipful, even rapturous expression of faith. They are, in a word, beautiful.

(The piece we bought will remain on display at Tyler White till a few days after Thanksgiving; we want it on our wall during the Christmas season, so it will only be viewable if you go to the gallery in the next few days.)

*

It's Christmastime, and Handel's Messiah is coming back onto cd players throughout America. (Which is really rather odd, since the oratorio is about the whole life of Christ, and culminates, not at Christmas, but at Easter.)

The question is, which recording of The Messiah? I've reviewed various recordings in years past, but the search for the perfect Messiah goes on, even for those who thought perfection had already been achieved with the Robert Shaw version.

This year I listened to two exceptionally good recordings, the Boston Baroque recording conducted by Martin Pearlman, and the recording by the Musiciens du Louvre, conducted by Minkowski.

Both of them take many of the choral numbers at tempos I had never heard before. Sometimes it can be jarring, almost comically so, as when I first hear Minkowski's version of "All They That See Him" and "He Trusted in God." The energy of the choral number is almost frantic. But the result is that as the cacophony of voices rises in mockery ("He trusted in God that he would deliver him; let him deliver him, if he delight in him"), it feels like jeering and scorn. It is also, in a word, thrilling.

And when the final phrase is taken in exaggerated staccato, it feels shockingly new -- and absolutely right.

Both Pearlman and Minkowski take the signature choral numbers with their fantastic and difficult runs and free them from the fetters of the slow tempos that most choirs have thought were required in order to manage the dozens of notes per measure.

But something surprising happens as the runs are sped up. Instead of the normal pattern, which is to aspirate or accent each new note in the run, when you sing them rapidly enough they become clean, clear notes, as smooth as the glissando of a harp. The voices seem to float through the runs with perfect accuracy but no sense of effort. Instead of feeling like work, they feel like joy.

The Minkowski is also surprising in the interpretation of "He Was Despised." A melodramatically slow tempo offers the soloist a chance to over-act the grief of the song. If this were a play, I would cringe; but as an oratorio, it becomes a legitimate choice, and -- as with the fresh interpretation of "He Trusted in God" -- it reawakens a sense of the meaning of the words.

Some of the difference between these two recordings arises from the rooms in which they were recorded. The Musiciens du Louvre were recorded in a hall that had a hint of echo, which added a kind of brilliance to the recording. If it had been taken further, it would have been hard to hear because the sound would have become muddy. The recording engineers walked the edge on this one -- but the payoff is superb. It is the recording that best approximates a live performance.

Yet my favorite soloist in all the recordings was Karen Clift, the soprano in the Boston Baroque performance, whose "And There Were Shepherds" is every bit as brilliant-sounding as the choral numbers in the Minkowski -- but the brilliance seems to come from her voice alone.

Both performances are so good, so fresh, so vivid that I would not be without them.

I must say, however, that I'm fed up with casting countertenors in some of the alto parts. I know there is an old tradition of using men with highly developed falsettos to sing these parts, but you know what? It's like watching a hippopotamus dance. I'm so proud of the hippo for having learned the trick, but don't make me watch the whole hippo version of the Nutcracker.

There is a falseness to the tone (hence the name) that quickly cloys; I find myself wishing to hear a woman sing the part so that I can concentrate on the music instead of the stunt.

There is still plenty of room for more traditional interpretations when they are very well done -- like, for instance, Sir Colin Davis's recording with the London Symphony, and Sir Thomas Beecham's with the Royal Philharmonic.

But I must warn you away from John Alldis and the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir. This recording is memorable for all the wrong reasons. The tempos are ponderous, and some of the soloists are clearly past their prime, or else never reached a prime worthy of some of this music.

Aging singers whose vibratos are wide enough that it sounds like you could write out the individual pitches in eighth notes might be beloved to those who remember them in their youth, but they should not be recorded for a paying audience.

And when pitches are repeatedly missed and the choir occasionally can't keep up with the orchestra and individual voices -- not the best ones, either -- stick out from the loud bits in the choruses, I urge you to save your money. Even if you are trying to have a complete collection of recordings of The Messiah, do not include this one. Whatever it is they recorded, it has little to do with anything Handel could have intended, and much to do with what he might have feared.

*

There aren't enough good cookies in this world -- mostly because as soon as they exist, I eat them. But I give you fair notice that Newman's Own has a delicious line of organic cookies.

"Organic" and "cookies" are two words that one normally does not expect to hear together, but I assure you that, as usual, the folks at Newman's Own, whatever their healthy or environmental agenda, make sure that whatever they produce is delicious.

Their chocolate chip cookes -- er, pardon, "Champion Chip Cookies" -- are the best of the small dry chocolate chips cookies (competing with Chips Ahoy and Famous Amos).

(And for me, that makes them best, period, since I've grown tired of the weird things they must do to Soft Batch and Chew Chips Ahoy to keep them perpetually soft. One thinks of them, after a while, as embalmed-but-flexible. Whereas the dry chocolate chip cookies feel somehow more honest.)

In addition, Newman's Own has a couple of Alphabet Cookies. The Cinnamon Graham is what you might expect, though I do wish they had skipped the cinnamon, since the pure flavor of graham crackers is what I prefer. Obviously I'm in a tiny minority, as even Nabisco's Teddy Grahams are harder and harder to find in convenience stores in anything but the cinnamon variety.

The gem of the Alphabet Cookies, though, is the Arrowroot flavor -- which is identical to what Animal Crackers used to be. Not like the hypersweetened versions that have disguised themselves in the old-fashioned zoo-train-car packaging. This is the real thing.

And they are grown organically in tropical regions, there are no trans-fatty acids, nothing hydrogenated, and no cholesterol. Saturated fats are lower than butter.

In fact, these cookies are so healthy and politically correct you're almost proud to eat them.


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