When Tyler Perry Found Out He Was the Nemesis in a Musical

“He wanted to kick my ass.”

A smiling young Black man wearing a bright pink shirt.
Michael R. Jackson. Joey Stocks.

Starting with its Aug. 23 episode, the Working podcast will have segments available exclusively to Slate Plus members. In the latest episode, Isaac Butler spoke with playwright Michael R. Jackson, whose musical A Strange Loop won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Slate Plus members get to hear how filmmaker Tyler Perry responded to hearing about his presence in Jackson’s show. This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Isaac Butler: Tyler Perry is a negative influence on the show A Strange Loop in that protagonist Usher’s parents want him to write a gospel play in the style of the work of Perry. Tyler Perry’s work is overtly Christian. It’s overtly conservative. It’s overtly homophobic. The A Strange Loop song “AIDS is God’s Punishment” is in some ways the show’s response to Perry’s work. But it turns out that the show got famous enough that Perry heard about it.

Michael R. Jackson: It had gotten back to me from my friend Jordan Cooper, who has a collaborative relationship with Tyler Perry, that Tyler had told him to tell me that he was going to beat my ass. And so I said, “Well, you tell him that I’ll meet him wherever he’s ready. I got Vaseline for my face just like he does.”

A day or two after I won the Pulitzer, I was on the phone with my mother when I receive a text from Tyler. I ignore it, because I’m on the phone with my mother. And then I get a phone call, and I see that it’s an Atlanta area code, and I know that it’s him. So I’m like, “Hey mom, let me call you back.” So then I’m like, “Hello? This is Michael.” And he says, “This is Tyler Perry.” And I’m like, “Oh, hello.” And he says, ” I’m going to beat your ass.” And I was like, “All right, let’s go. Whenever you’re ready.” Then he’s like, “No, but seriously, congratulations on the Pulitzer. It’s a big deal. I hear that, you were the first Black something or other.” So I break it down to him that I was the first Black musical-theater writer to win for drama, the first gay Black musical-theater writer to win for drama, and the second Black man to win for drama, period.

He thought that was great. Then he mentioned that he knows from talking to [director] Lee Daniels that a lot of young Black writers complain that their family members often say they should write more like him, and that he feels like everybody should be able to write whatever they want. I said, “I totally agree with you on that. And so if you want to have a deeper conversation about this at a later date, I will be happy to do that.” Then he was like, “No, congratulations. I hadn’t seen the show. I’d heard about it, but I didn’t see it.” I said, “Well, if you want to listen to the cast album, it’s available wherever you get music.” And he was like, “Oh, maybe I’ll call up Jay-Z and see if it’s on Tidal.” And I said, “I don’t know if it’s on there, but maybe.”

That’s a flex.

I know. It was such a flex. Unfortunately, it was lost on me. Then he said something before we got off the phone, like, “Oh, well, you should be glad I didn’t try to get a piece off of you using my name .” I was like, “Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.” And then we hung up.

Two minutes later, he texted me a screenshot of the cast album, showing that he had bought it off of Tidal and that he had listened to the song “Tyler Perry Writes Real Life.” He didn’t say what he thought of it.

What he should have listened to was “Writing a Gospel Play,” because the song “Tyler Perry Writes Real Life” is this weird veneration of him by the ancestors, whereas “Writing a Gospel Play” is a take-down of the form that he works in.

To listen to the full episode of Working with Michael R. Jackson, subscribe or listen on the player below.