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