He’s still writing his own story

Times Staff Writer

David E. Talbert isn’t exactly delighted by his default description in Hollywood these days: “the next Tyler Perry.” But then, the multiple NAACP award-winning writer-director-producer -- whose debut dramedy, “First Sunday,” hits theaters Jan. 11 -- isn’t actively discouraging the comparison either.

After all, both popular playwrights have grown rich and influential by creating works that intermingle inspirational messages, modern music and plain spoken ‘hood realities with big belly laughs. As well, both cater primarily to the same underserved fan base: middle-aged, middle-class, church-going African American women.

In fact, Talbert and Perry are the top brands in what’s known as urban theater -- a boisterous milieu that grosses tens of millions of dollars a year and packs sizable concert halls and theaters while receiving scant mainstream attention and over time has been called many things, including “black Broadway,” gospel theater and even the “chitlin’ circuit” owing to its roots in the segregated South.


“We serve popcorn at some of our plays -- you’ll never see that with ‘Les Miserables,’ ” said Talbert, breaking into a grin while reclining on a plush sofa in the entertainment room of his San Fernando Valley home. “We serve Courvoisier too. People get a nice little buzz on. Sometimes people drink a little too much rum and Coke before they see us. It unfortunately disrupts the action onstage. But it’s theater owned by the people. If they love it, they’ll talk back to the play.”

At a moment when urban theater is making serious inroads into the mainstream, Talbert’s strong association with the genre carries weight. And viewed a certain way, Perry was actually once the next David Talbert, whose first play preceded Perry’s first effort by nearly eight years. And Talbert’s stage efforts (such as “Tellin’ It Like It ‘Tiz!” and “He Say . . . She Say . . . but What Does GOD Say?”) are already considered classics.

In 2005, writer-director-producer Perry (who also appears as a hot-headed, pistol-packing granny named Madea in his productions) took his urban-themed, gospel-flavored play “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” from the proscenium to the big screen. Despite witheringly negative reviews and the absence of any bankable stars, the $5.5 million movie stunned industry observers by earning more than $50 million at the box office.

Perry’s movie adaptations of his plays (“Tyler Perry’s Daddy’s Little Girls” and “Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married” were released this year) have earned a cumulative $107 million, TBS shelled out $200 million for his new sitcom, and Perry’s company is on track to gross $1 billion by 2009.

So when Talbert began making the studio rounds nearly three years ago, conventional wisdom had him similarly adapting one of the 12 plays he’s produced for film. But the Washington, D.C. native, who has been touring the country with his productions for 15 years, wanted to develop an original screenplay.

“They wanted me to do what Tyler did,” Talbert said. “But I’m not Tyler Perry. I don’t follow anybody out the gate. I want to create new stories.”

Laughs and hard truths

“First Sunday” follows two down-on-their-luck petty criminals (glowering straight man Ice Cube and “30 Rock’s” bumbling yet huggable Tracy Morgan) who botch a plot to rip off their local church and wind up taking its congregation hostage. As it turns out, the bad guys aren’t so bad after all -- even if they’ve taken to waving pistols and trying to blow up a safe in a house of the Lord -- and not all the parishioners are as saintly as you might expect. Hilarity, hard truths and important realizations about personal accountability ensue.

“ ‘First Sunday’ is the best of all my worlds,” Talbert said. “It’s romance, a whole lot of comedy, a whole lot of inspiration. It’s social commentary. That’s the formula that works for me.”

But the project nearly fell apart when Talbert grew frustrated with the glacial pace of getting “First Sunday” into production. Feeling fed up with the endless script suggestions issued by the production chief of Sony’s Screen Gems, Clint Culpepper, and producer Tim Story (the director of “Barbershop”) and discouraged after original stars rapper-actor Ludacris and comedian Mike Epps fell out, Talbert returned to theater to mount his romantic stage play “Love in the Nick of Tyme.”

“Clint was giving me these notes and I said, ‘This is what I feel and if you don’t, I’m not mad at you. But I’ll just do what I do somewhere else,’ ” Talbert recalled. “Clint was like, ‘OK.’ It was a standoff for about six months.”

Confirmed Culpepper: “We had a few fights along the way.” In 2006, Screen Gems’ option on the script expired. But undaunted, Culpepper sent the screenplay to Ice Cube’s Cube Vision Productions. And once the rapper-actor read it, he jumped at the chance to star and produce -- not least because it would allow him to tap into Talbert’s churchgoing fan base.

“I wasn’t looking at it like, ‘Yo, I need to do a movie for this [faith-based] audience,’ ” said Cube. “But David has an infectious personality. He has vision. And he knows this audience like the back of his hand. The audience that loves his plays goes to these movies. They want to see black people in real-life situations -- they want to see black people on the screen.”

Although Talbert, 41, was brought up in an immersive religious background -- his great-grandmother was a Pentecostal preacher, his grandmother is a touring evangelist, his mother was a preacher and his father and brother are pastors -- he grounds his optimistic worldview with real-world experiences. Before Talbert began writing plays in 1990, he earned a marketing degree from Morgan State and worked as a radio DJ in Baltimore and Oakland.

He has resisted putting any specific dogma into his plays, bestselling novels (he’s written three, including “Love Don’t Live Here No More,” co-written by Snoop Dogg) or movie in lieu of more general social messages. “I’m not a religious guy,” Talbert said. “There’s a much bigger audience when you’re not hitting them over the head with, ‘You have to feel this way or feel that way to take part.’

“A lot of times, religion can be a way to keep people from coming together.”

Asked if he had a social agenda, Talbert laughed. “I’m a 6-foot-3 black man whose favorite movie is ‘Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,’ ” he said. “I see the world as it could be, not as it is, quite a lot. I’ll show you the way the world is in my work. But I also show you the way it could be if people would understand each other a bit more.”

‘Brother Talbert’ visits

In the final buildup to “First Sunday’s” release, Talbert is embarking on what he calls a “shaking hands, kissing babies tour.” But it’s really a powerful word-of-mouth generating promotional blitz that’s written into the writer-director-producer’s Screen Gems contract. Next month, Talbert will travel to 10 cities in 10 days to visit church leaders with whom he is personally acquainted. In turn, Talbert says the pastors are block-buying tickets for their flocks over “First Sunday’s” opening weekend.

“I come to town and talk to congregations of 3,000 people. They introduce me at the pulpit,” Talbert said, before lapsing into the voice of a pastor. “ ‘Praise the Lord, saints. Brother Talbert is here. He’s our man, one of our favorite playwrights. And he’s got a new movie. Brother Talbert, come talk about it.’ ”

“They have partaken of my product. They are comfortable with it. They know who they are getting.”

According to Culpepper, who is no stranger to scoring hits with urban-oriented movies, Talbert’s ability to personally reach his core audience is nearly unparalleled. “He’ll send out e-mails to 600,000 people,” Culpepper exclaimed. “In black culture, it’s very much about awareness. You get out there early and create word-of-mouth. David’s really well known. In two years, he will be as big, if not bigger than Tyler Perry.”

Ah, that old fall-back comparison. For his part, though, Talbert has set his sites beyond urban theater. “I’m really not just a black writer,” he said. “My stories happen to have black people in them, but they’re universal in subject matter.

“I want to be the black Neil Simon. He’s just the quintessential comedic playwright and a master of pulling everyone into these characters -- black, white, Jewish, whatever. His work appeals to everybody. And that’s my approach. My stories are for everybody.”