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Tyler Perry takes on ‘For Colored Girls’

Los Angeles theater producer Gary Levingston calls “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf” one of the most transcendent works of the American stage. Ntozake Shange’s 1970s play about the struggles of several black women is “life-changing and life-saving,” said Levingston, who has brought two stagings of the play to life in the last two years.

Although Levingston has nothing but praise for Shange, he is notably more reserved about Tyler Perry, Hollywood’s most commercially successful and controversial independent black filmmaker. Like many African Americans, especially those working in the arts, Levingston takes offense with Perry’s more outrageous characters — particularly Madea, the gun-toting, insult-hurling grandmother played by Perry in a dress and heavy makeup in movies such as “Madea’s Family Reunion” and " Madea Goes to Jail.”

Yet when Levingston heard that Perry had adapted Shange’s play for the big screen, he was instantly enthused. “I hope to be the first in line on opening night,” Levingston said. “I say, give this man a chance. The story is so powerful. I’m confident this will be a game-changer for Tyler.”

Though Levingston is convinced that Perry has met the challenge of transforming what is essentially a non-linear series of poetic monologues into a movie, media commentator Callie Crossley is dubious.

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“I love the play, and when I first heard Tyler was doing it, I was disgusted,” said Crossley, who hosts her own show on WGBH, Boston’s public radio station. “I’m very concerned about it being ‘Perry-ized.’ So much of what he does smacks of stereotype, and he’s not a very good writer.”

Levingston and Crossley’s diametrically opposed reactions epitomize the excitement and dread generated by “For Colored Girls,” which opens Friday and stars Janet Jackson, Whoopi Goldberg, Phylicia Rashad, Thandie Newton, Anika Noni Rose and Loretta Devine.

Anticipation for the Lionsgate film has been building for months, especially among African American women; many are planning informal opening-weekend viewing parties. Given the pedigree of the play and the film’s high-caliber cast, some observers predict the movie may have a cultural influence similar to 1995’s “Waiting to Exhale,” which became a touchstone of female bonding and grossed about $67 million in the U.S.

Essence magazine, which is targeted at black women, is showcasing “For Colored Girls” on two different covers of its December issue — one featuring Perry and the movie’s actors, and one featuring the actresses. Regina R. Robertson, West Coast editor of Essence, said word of mouth and the early trailers have ratcheted up interest: “People really seem to be excited now. They can’t wait.”

The question now, though, is whether Perry, who is stepping out of his comfort zone, can score a critical and commercial success with “For Colored Girls.”

Perry’s string of poorly reviewed yet profitable movies and hit TV comedies (TBS’ “House of Payne” and “Meet the Browns”) has transformed him into the dominant African American voice of Hollywood.

But his brand of melodrama, combining raucous humor and messages about faith, has drawn fire from other black filmmakers and critics. Perry’s detractors contend that his cartoonish and thinly drawn characters perpetuate negative images of African Americans, and that he lacks the subtlety and storytelling skills of an accomplished filmmaker.

“People have been very critical of his imagery being one-dimensional,” said Darnell Hunt, director of UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies. “Shange’s play has a certain gravitas in our culture, and taking it on is a major responsibility.”

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Perry refused to be interviewed for this story, and early reviews have not been especially enthusiastic. Even his supporters have questioned whether he was an appropriate choice to helm the film, given its bleak subject matter, including rape, domestic violence and abortion.

“My immediate reaction was fear,” said Farah Jasmine Griffin, professor of English and African American studies at Columbia University. “I go to Tyler’s movies and enjoy them. I just couldn’t imagine his artistic vision being capable of bringing what is needed for this play.”

Yet Rashad said those skeptical about Perry’s approach will be stunned when they see the film.

“He is seen as a certain kind of filmmaker who is not at the same artistic level as this piece,” she said. “But people will see that he is a good filmmaker. He saw more than 40 different productions of the play. More than anything he wanted to honor the poetry, to honor Ntozake and every woman who has performed this work with a rendition that would be worthy.”

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The furor over Perry’s “For Colored Girls” adaptation is a bit reminiscent of the hoopla that erupted when Steven Spielberg was named to direct the film version of Alice Walker’s acclaimed novel, “The Color Purple.” Many wondered whether a white director specializing in fantastic blockbusters was the right choice to helm an intimate film about an abused black woman in the 1900s. The film was a critical and popular success.

Shange’s Tony-nominated play, structured as a “choreopoem,” has been staged on and off-Broadway and continues to be performed at community theaters and schools. Like the play, “For Colored Girls” is filled with raw, searing emotions as the characters grapple with troubled relationships, abuse and unfulfilled dreams.

Shange, who consulted on “For Colored Girls,” praised the film. “Mr. Perry has done the best he could. The actresses are powerful and sensitive,” she said. But she added that the movie reflects his vision, not hers: “That’s why I’m a poet and he’s a cinema artist.”

Griffin, the Columbia professor, is one of the play’s fans who is willing to give Perry a chance: “Everybody has the capacity to grow. This represents an opportunity for growth for Tyler. Let’s just wait and see.”

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But lest anyone think “For Colored Girls” represents a permanent departure for Perry from his earlier movies, think again: “Madea’s Big Happy Family” is slated to arrive in theaters next year.

greg.braxton@latimes.com


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