When I was a kid, my mother, Maxine, would take me into the projects in New Orleans for her regular Friday night card game. This was no bridge game with a table of proper ladies — this was an apartment full of sharp-witted, drinking, cussing, smoking, strong, irreverent but caring women. I can clearly remember sitting on the concrete floor, choking from the smoke and covering my ears from the loud laughter and blasting blues music. Every now and again I would listen to these women talk about the woes in their lives and relationships, but no sooner had sadness entered the room than one of them would make a joke and the laughter would start all over again.
Looking back on this now, I realise that I was in a master class and my six-year-old brain was soaking it all in. It was in those moments that I learnt that laughter can stand arm in arm with agony.
Later when my mother and I were home, and my father would fly off into his usual fits of abusive rage, I quickly used my newfound tactics on my mother. After he left the room, I would walk in and imitate her and those card-playing women, and eventually she’d laugh. That laugh was medicine for my young soul.
Now I look back on a lot of my early writing and I feel that I was subconsciously talking to my mother. I was carrying her and those beautiful, powerful, strong black women in my spirit. And much to the dismay of my critics, I’m pretty sure that this is how and why I started putting very serious subject matter right alongside humour in my work. I knew that my audience was full of women like the ones that I loved so much growing up.
To that end, when I first did the tough-talking, truth-telling Madea at the Regal Theater in Chicago almost 20 years ago, I had no idea that imitating my mother would end up bringing joy to millions of people around the world. I thought I was just an actor donning a costume to entertain in a live comedic play. Most of the show was full of over-the-top jokes that brought lots of laughter, but around the last 30 minutes something happened. Madea got the opportunity to riff about pain and heartache, forgiveness, and God and faith. When I got to those life lessons, something happened. There was utter silence in the theatres, and it became so clear to me that the audience was hanging on her every word.
I understood very early on that this mostly blue-collar African-American audience was feeling inspired. They were getting answers to a lot of what was going on in our community that no one was talking about. I was blown away that somehow this ridiculous-looking 6-foot-6 guy in a dress had found a way to do for this audience the same thing that I had done for my mother. I could lift them with humour and use that laughter as an anaesthetic and talk about really deep, sensitive issues that were destroying so many of us — things like rape and molestation and the inability to forgive.
This was further confirmed when I started receiving messages like “Madea did in two hours what my family hasn’t been able to do in 12 years — convince my sister to finally leave an abusive relationship.”
I understood then how important it was to continue in the rawness of what I had created. To continue speaking a language that was a shorthand my audience and I understood. To continue to break all the traditional rules of storytelling.
If these strong, nurturing black women from my childhood knew that their stories and strengths had inspired me to pay homage to them and that this loving tribute had moved, helped and lifted people all around the world, they would be so proud.
For these reasons, I wrestled for a while with the question of the right time to end the character. But then I thought — this is the year I’m turning 50. There’s much more I want to do, so many more stories I want to tell and more roles I want to play. I was thrilled to be Colin Powell in ‘Vice’ and Tanner Bolt in ‘Gone Girl’ and I’m looking forward to more opportunities like those. But that old broad has been good to me, so who knows — maybe one day I’ll tell the story of Madea in the ‘70s and hire a real actress to play the role. But the time of playing her has come to an end.
I have to say it’s very evident that the audience is not ready to say goodbye to her either: 25,000 to 30,000 people still show up every week to the Madea Farewell Play tour. And as always, the last half-hour of the show is the only time I don’t feel ridiculous in that dress, because I’m doing what the character was created to do.
I recently got a call from Oprah telling me that the girls at her school in South Africa were talking about the lessons Madea taught them in my movies and plays, lessons like self-esteem, respecting yourself, and staying strong. I’ll admit that my resolve to let Madea go wavered again, but even with those wonderful words of inspiration, I feel that it’s time.
It has always and will always be my hope that something this character has done or said has made someone’s life better. And that some little child who is sitting on the floor with their mother in pain can play one of these movies or shows and they both can smile together. She’s been that for me and I hope she continues to be that for the world.
Don’t miss it!
‘A Madea Family Funeral’ is currently playing across the UAE.