Atlanta has been home to a breathtaking number of iconic drag queens, from Charlie Brown being featured in an HBO documentary to RuPaul turning cross-dressing into a pop culture phenomenon. In the last year alone, Atlanta’s Nicole Paige Brooks and Sonique gained national exposure, while Bianca Nicole captured the Entertainer of the Year crown, one of the most coveted titles in drag pageantry.
But only one Atlanta drag queen is fierce enough to ki-ki with Oprah Winfrey, command millions of dollars at the box office and sell out four nights worth of shows at the Fabulous Fox Theatre: Mabel “Madea” Simmons.
However, the vast majority of people who attend Tyler Perry’s “Madea’s Big Happy Family” during its April 15-18 run at the Fox Theatre would likely be shocked by the suggestion that they were attending a drag show, even as they watch Perry perform in the same lipstick, wig and muumuu that he has worn while building a global media empire.
“I love Madea,” said Francine Holt as she entered Perry’s latest movie, “Why Did I Get Married Too?” which does not feature the Madea character. “It reminds me of home as an African-American. It reminds me of Sundays at home with my family when we were growing up — that’s what a black family is like.
“I would never look at her as a drag queen, no,” Holt said. “And as a matter of fact, my kid doesn’t even know that it’s a guy. He thinks Madea is Madea.”
Of the dozen women interviewed outside of a recent screening of “Why Did I Get Married Too” at Atlantic Station, all identified themselves as fans of Madea, and not one of them considered what Perry does to be a form of drag. Some women reconsidered their thoughts during the interview, while others were visibly disturbed by the suggestion.
“I love the comedy,” one woman said in a jovial tone at the start of the interview.
When asked if she considered Madea to be a drag character, she said, “I’ve never thought about it like that. It’s a character, just like anything else.”
As were all the interviewees, the woman was then asked what makes Perry dressing as Madea different from other men who dress in women’s clothes.
“I don’t see him as drag, so it’s not the same,” the woman said tersely before walking away and refusing to give her name.
Lynsey English described herself as a fan of both Madea and traditional drag acts, but said she doesn’t consider Madea to be drag “because I feel like it’s just a character.”
“I think both [traditional drag and black comedians dressing as women] are for entertainment, but with drag, it’s a different type of entertainment,” English said. “And I feel like, with the Madea character, he’s portraying — well, it’s kind of similar, when you think about it, because they’re both portraying someone of the opposite sex.”
‘Call it what it is’
In the most literal interpretation, a man who dresses up as a woman for entertainment — or vice versa — is participating in drag.
“I mean, you call it what it is,” said PT the Comedian, who regularly performs stand-up comedy routines dressed as an old black church lady. “You call a spade a spade. If you see a dog, it’s a dog. If a man dresses as a woman for his job, he’s a drag queen.
“Being a drag queen doesn’t mean that you’re gay, not at all,” PT adds. “But if you put on a wig, and put on some pumps, and you put on a dress, you are a drag queen, a female impersonator.”
But the form of female parody that Perry engages in resonates with audiences in a way that few other professional cross-dressers ever have. Instead of a red-light cabaret, Madea performs in morality plays that many feel capture the essence of the African-American family.
“I think when he plays her, she’s funny — he, she’s funny — and there’s always a positive message, which is nice to see every now and then,” said filmgoer Lesley Smith. “I mean, technically it is [drag], but I don’t ever think that when I’m watching it, maybe because that’s just been how [Perry] has always been.
“It could be that he’s playing an older, grandmother-type role, and you can tell he’s trying to be funny and make people laugh,” Smith added.
“Also, I think he’s trying to motivate people in that character,” added Smith’s friend, Alisa Hamilton. “It’s not just because that’s what he should do, or that’s what he should be. I feel like a lot of times with drag, they are trying to be something that they are not, either because they want to be a woman, or they’re fascinated with the woman’s lifestyle, but Madea is no where near as glamorous as those girls are.”
Another factor that makes Madea digestible to audiences is that Perry is the latest in a long string of black male actors to put on a wig and dress for comedic effect.
“I think what Tyler Perry is doing with that image is actually something that’s pretty consistent with what Flip Wilson did before him, and what even more recently, Martin Lawrence did when he dressed as Shanana or what Jamie Foxx did when he was Wanda,” said Adia Harvey Wingfield, an assistant professor of sociology at Georgia State University.
“There’s kind of been a historical tradition of black comedians and actors sort of donning this representation of black femininity as a comedic vehicle,” Wingfield said. “Given that this operates out of a long history where this has been a comedic device that people are rather familiar with, I think that helps to make it something that’s a little more comfortable.”
Demetrius Bady, a gay film writer and producer, considers Madea to be a drag character, but understands how most of Perry’s fans can “suspend their disbelief” that he is engaging in drag, just as they do when they laugh at dehumanized caricatures like Wanda and Shanana, who are rumored to be considering a feature film.
“These women are usually asexual, overbearing caricatures of the most stereotypical traits associated with black women, and they’re usually overweight, so none of this is to be taken seriously,” Bady says. “And that’s why people are able to suspend reality and say, ‘This is not a man in a dress. This is a man making fun of overweight black women, and that’s acceptable.’”
Madea ‘completely different’ from drag?
Madea’s widespread appeal among African Americans, particularly churchgoers, starkly contrasts with the tension that exists in many black communities surrounding gay and transgender individuals and issues.
“It’s completely different, they’re drag queens,” Holt said as she looked at pictures of drag queens in Atlanta. “Those people have a sexual preference, they’re men who want to be women. And Madea is representing a head-of-household figure in our community. She looks like our grandmother and she reminds us of times that was.”
But looking and acting like a black grandmother in the same style as Madea does not ensure acceptance from black audiences, as PT the Comedian learned when he was asked to host a comedy showcase in Marietta last year.
“They hired me to go there and emcee as my old lady character. I never told gay jokes, I never did anything gay at all, I just got up and hosted the show,” PT the Comedian said. “The fourth week, I get a phone call from the promoter saying, ‘Oh, we don’t want you to host the show anymore. People are saying this, that and the other about having a drag queen host the show.
“It just upsets me that the straight community will say, ‘Oh, [Madea is] just an act’ or ‘Oh, it’s just a character,’” he added. “When I dress up, I’m not a woman, I’m just an illusion of a woman, a church lady or whatever. And if I was to go on Ellen or Oprah Winfrey tomorrow and start doing my old lady bit, people would say that I’m a drag queen, which I am.”
The term “drag” has an indelible gay connotation, and Perry has stated that he is heterosexual, despite how unconvinced some bloggers and media columnists may be.
“Doesn’t Perry realize what a difference he could make by simply uttering a quick statement and being forthright rather than acting vague all the time and bringing leggy females to premieres?” gay columnist Michael Musto wrote in a 2009 column for the Village Voice titled “Why won’t Tyler Perry come out?”
“He could enlighten throngs of people, most of whom, I’m sure, would keep on loving him every bit as much!” Musto wrote.
In a 2007 interview with Essence magazine, Perry said he used to be bothered when people assumed he was gay because he dressed as a woman.
“But what it’s done is give me firm seating in my manhood,” Perry told Essence. “And if some people can’t separate the character from the man that I am, then that’s their issue, not mine.”
Refusing to see Madea as a drag queen allows black audiences to continue to sidestep issues that make them uncomfortable, Bady said.
“I think it’s very dangerous for the African-American community to pretend that homophobia is not a destructive force in our community, for all of us,” Bady said. “It really is kind of silly to be able to make ‘Madea’ the No. 1 movie or play in America, and at the same time be openly hostile to people for whom doing drag is a reality. It’s silly, and it’s a detriment to us all.”
Wingfield agreed that there is a disassociation that takes place among many Perry fans that prevents them from making a connection between Madea and broader gay or transgender issues.
“It doesn’t necessarily force people to say, ‘Well, I enjoy this man in a dress, and a wig and falsies, and I find that funny. So what does that say about my support or lack thereof of transgender individuals,’” Wingfield said. “I think it’s easy for people to split them into two different categories, in part because I think the characters such as Madea and her predecessors are seen as characters, and because it doesn’t resonate in the same way as a transgender individual might.”
But just as Madea reminds many black fans of grandmothers from a bygone era, she also reminds transgender East Point resident DeeDee Chamblee of the cross-dresses she knew growing up in Atlanta.
“They went to church, they were part of the community and people looked up to them because they carried themselves in the way Madea did,” Chamblee said. “Not all of the characteristics — not the shooting of the gun and all of that, but some of them did. One, we called Granny, and Granny would shoot you, yes she would.”
Even though Perry does not address transgender or gay issues in his films and plays, Chamblee believes the celebration of Madea could help both causes.
“By them just seeing that it’s funny, that opens the door and then you can kind of educate them about what this really is, and they wouldn’t receive that in any other way,” Chamblee said. “Now that they’ve been exposed to it, and it’s kind of popular in a funny sense, it might open the doors to them wanting to know more about it.
“I feel like a Madea character in my community, I really do,” Chamblee said with a laugh. “Everybody knows me, they look up to me, they respect me, they know I’m transgender. I do have a few confrontations now and then, but I think I’ve brought my community a long way.
“All of the young people, and the children and the families, they respect me, they see me going to church, they see my husband who I’ve been with for 20 years,” she said. “I got three dogs and so they just see me live everyday, and they see I’m real people.”
Photo courtesy Tyler Perry Studios, Madea by Quantrell Colbert courtesy Lionsgate