The Outrageous Tyler Perry-Inspired Song You Need to See on Broadway

The Outrageous Tyler Perry-Inspired Song You Need to See on Broadway

By now, you’ve probably heard that a prominent character in Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop, now in its final run at the Lyceum Theatre, is Tyler Perry. No, the multi-hyphenate doesn’t actually appear in the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning musical. But his legacy as one of the few Black power brokers in Hollywood—and more crucially, the writer of some pretty mediocre but extremely successful plays—looms large over the show’s main protagonist as he writes his own semi-autobiographical play, also called A Strange Loop.

Plenty of Black artists have sounded off on Perry’s career, whether they’re defending his right to make abysmal work, criticizing his depictions of Black women, or parodying him, like in a recent episode of Atlanta. Still, there hasn’t been a distillation of Perry’s influence and complicated position in the Black community quite like the musical number “Tyler Perry Writes Real Life,” performed in A Strange Loop by some surprising figures.

First, a brief summary of the musical: A Strange Loop follows a fat, Black, queer man named Usher, who’s an actual usher at The Lion King with aspirations of being a playwright. His Thoughts—which are represented as characters and act as a chorus throughout the production—reveal the chronic self-loathing and insecurity that impedes his writing process and journey to self-love. We also learn about his complicated relationship to his parents in equally hilarious and devastating interactions—the funniest being their insistence that he model his career after Perry’s.

“Tyler knows how to bring everything together with all the stories and all the singing and all the different people talking,” says one of Usher’s Thoughts, echoing the sentiments of his God-fearing, homophobic mother. “Tyler Perry don’t ever forget to bring in the spirit’cha’lities,” says another Thought. “Write a nice, clean, Tyler Perry-like gospel play for your parents please!”

Usher considers himself the antithesis of the man behind Madea. According to him, Perry writes “anti-Black” characters who don’t represent the complexity of Black life. The success of Perry’s unnuanced work is especially irksome as Usher experiences the pressure to flatten his experiences as a queer, Black man to appeal to a more mainstream audience.

About a quarter of the way into the musical, his agent calls him about an opportunity to ghostwrite one of Perry’s plays. Usher goes on a rant, denouncing Perry’s “coonery” and “simple-minded, hack buffoonery” until he’s suddenly interrupted by a shocking specter.

“Who are you?” Usher asks timidly, as a foreboding silhouette appears behind him.

“I’m Harriet motherfuckin’ Tubman,” declares one of his Thoughts, dressed in her famous shawl and wielding a rifle. “And I got a problem with you!”

That excellently delivered line, by the actor James Jackson Jr., earned the biggest laugh when I saw the musical last week during Big, Black, Queer Night hosted by Bob The Drag Queen. So begins “Tyler Perry Writes Real Life.”

In the outrageous number, Usher’s Thoughts embody several Black trailblazers and icons who pop out from the shadows and ascend from the floor like zombies—there’s Tubman, Jimmy Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Carter G. Woodson, and a man dressed like Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave who introduces himself as “12 Years a Slave” and holds an Oscar. The second-best reveal is saved for last, when Whitney Houston rises from the floor in a coffin and dressed in a shimmery gown. Her inclusion among these much older and frankly more revolutionary figures is hilarious, random, and ultimately unimpeachable.

“Who the fuck is you, n—-?” they sing together, pointing at Usher as he disappears in a corner. “You look it, but you ain’t no true n—-.”

“Tyler Perry is a real n—-,” they assert. “And not a cracker-pleasing Seal n—-. He writes how our people feel. With him at the wheel, n—-, what can’t we do?”

Listening to the group of deceased legends applaud Perry’s depiction of “fat, Black women with weaves who find love and redemption” and “muscle-bound Black men who own their own business” is deliciously absurd and laugh-out-loud funny. But the lyrics are also painstakingly authentic. Not only does the show tune capture what many Black people appreciate about Perry’s work, but it also illustrates how different generations of Black people define racial progress and standards for representation.

There’s nothing older Black people love more than conjuring up our ancestors when discussing modern Black issues, often using the experiences of historical figures like Tubman as a measuring stick. (Imagine Martin Luther King hearing you complain about that?) Michael R. Jackson uses “Tyler Perry Writes Real Life” to poke fun at this reductive framing. But somehow, the authority with which Tubman and the other figures scold Usher for his snobbery—despite some of his critiques about Perry being accurate—feels correct.

Without being too presumptuous, a Black person taking issue with another Black person receiving as much love, money, and respect as Perry would probably sound ridiculous to an enslaved person with no rights. Yes, Hurston received similar critiques as Perry for her portrayal of Black people in her literature, and Baldwin had no problem critiquing Black art. But at the root of every great joke is a very simple and dumb truth.

On the other hand, it’s silly to scold Black people for criticizing folks like Perry or Jay-Z or Barack Obama for legitimate offenses just because generations before them didn’t have the opportunity to be as powerful or successful. But as A Strange Loop examines, being Black is constantly being reminded of the people who came before you.

By the end of the song, Usher caves in and says he’ll accept the Perry gig “for the ancestors.” And Tubman, the last ancestor onstage, reminds him that he’ll never escape his skin color.

The last part of this scene, when I saw it, was seemingly ad-libbed by Jackson Jr., as it’s not in the musical book. In the middle of Tubman chiding Usher, she suddenly looks up like she just heard an oven timer go off and says, “Oh yeah, freedom!” and scurries off the stage.

While A Strange Loop is brimming with these kinds of hysterical moments, “Tyler Perry Writes Real Life” lands the best while also delivering the greatest fictional depiction I’ve seen of Harriet Tubman. The song in and of itself is enough of a reason to see the production before it leaves Broadway on Jan. 15.

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