Credit: Matthew Odom
There's a Tyler Perry experience you can only have in Macon
Madea would have been proud of what happened in Macon over the weekend — if not a little surprised.
At a private, black-tie event Friday night at the Tubman African American Museum opened the first art exhibition that chronicles the life and work of Tyler Perry, the New Orleans native who established himself as a studio owner, filmmaker, actor, playwright, author and philanthropist in Atlanta in the early 1990s.
"I can't tell you how many times I've been asked, 'Why Macon?' 'Why Tubman?'" said the museum's executve director, Harold Young. "And I saw it immediately."
"I was at an elementary school just recently," he continued, "I was a Black History Month speaker. And I asked [the students]: 'Who was Martin Luther King?' The response: " 'Oh he was a great speaker. 'I said, 'OK — what about Harriett Tubman?'
"'She was an escaped slave.'"
"Is that it?!" Young recalled thinking, still obviously troubled by the students' answers.
"The history's not being taught," he said. "History's actually under attack. That’s why you need museums. You need places like this to teach history ... And I wanted this place, this exhibit, to be an inspiration. Here is [Tyler Perry], a man those kids know, those kids see, who came from humble beginnings and became everything he wanted to be."
And what's the Harriet Tubman/Tyler Perry connection, to Young?
"The one thing that Tyler Perry has always done is reach back and get other people; help other people," explained the executive director who, while having worked on the exhibit for five years, still has yet to meet the mogul. "[Perry] tells a great story about him walking across the street, and there was a man who needed some help geting across. You always need somebody to help you get across.
"And like Harriet Tubman, when she got to a certain point in her life and she had her freedom — she had escaped already — but what did she do? She went back and got somebody. She made sure others were free, And that’s what we all need: to get some inspiration and reach back and bring others with us, as well.
That is the obvious goal of the exhibition, now open to the public for the next two years. At its entrance, overhead, are the words, "Tyler Perry: Higher Awaits — Your Beginning Never Dictates Your Destiny."
A few steps into the exhibition, visitors hear Perry's voice, as video plays of him talking about the 330-acre studio complex he opened in what was once a Confederate army base in Atlanta.
And past the images of baby Tyler, his childhood home in Louisiana, items from his 17 feature films, 20 stage plays and seven television shows and a wall of awards — including a Candle Award from Morehouse College — there's an interactive portion titled "Living The Dream," where visitors are encouraged to write down their vision and make it part of Perry's installation.
It's especially fitting for attendee Jon Gosier, who worked at Tyler Perry Studios shortly after graduating from college and now finances feature movies for his FilmHedge, a partner of the exhibit.
"I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now if I hadn't seen that example," Gosier said.
"Just watching the man work and the things that he accomplished and the road he paved for himself in this really, hard-to-navigate industry inspired me to do the same," he continued. "It gave me the confidence that I could do it for myself. And now, standing on the other side 20 years later, I did it. And I just commend him for everything he's accomplished, and inspiring others."
Also among the attendees treated to champagne, passed hors d'oeuvres, individual banana puddings and The Fort Valley State University Jazz Band was LaRonda Sutton, who launched onetime Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed's Office of Film and Entertainment; and now leads Entertainment.gov.
"It's Black History Month; it's The Harriet Tubman Museum. It makes sense," Sutton said of the occasion. "So of course I'm here...We want to see future Tyler Perrys come from the state of Georgia."
What — or more specifically, who — Sutton and the hundreds in attendance did not see was Perry himself.
But he sent "his love, his blessing [and] his gratitude," via Robert A. Boyd II, chief operating officer of Tyler Perry Studios.
"[Perry] thanks you from the bottom of his heart," Boyd said. "We are in the middle of multiple productions [in Europe in Atlanta] right now, so he couldn’t be here today."
"This is a huge moment for him, for us," he added. "... He couldn’t imagine being any other place, in any other museum than The Tubman Museum."
There was a cosign in the museum from the purse-slinging, grandmotherly Madea character Perry often portrays, too: Madea's glasses are in the exhibit. Her Beyonce-inspired ensemble from Tyler Perry's A Madea Homecoming is there. And the blown-up image of a purportedly serious Madea could still conjure both fear or hiliarity, without uttering a single, fractured curse word.