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Theater Tue May 22 2012

Interview with Singer/Actress Cheryl Pepsii Riley

Whenever you hear the name "Madea," the hilarious, no-nonsense, advice-giving matriarch in Tyler Perry's plays, you immediately think of--Tyler Perry; however, when it comes to his productions, there is definitely another name you should also know: Cheryl Pepsii Riley. Here, the New York-born singer and actress, who co-stars alongside Perry in Tyler Perry's Madea Gets A Job, discusses messages, music and of course, Madea.


Cheryl Pepsii Riley; photo: Steven Williams.

You're coming to town this week for Tyler Perry's Madea Gets A Job--how has the tour been going so far?

It's been wonderful; actually we were there at the beginning of the tour a couple of months ago and we're coming back. Chicago has always been so good to Tyler Perry; you guys always come out and support.

You share a long working history with Perry and are a staple in his plays--how did your relationship with him initially come about?

I've been doing plays for over 20 years and I started doing this genre of theater in 1991. At the time, the only secular artists who were doing gospel plays were myself and [the late] David Peaston, who knew Tyler from his very first show. We went to Atlanta and David said, "Tyler Perry wants to meet you." And I met him and he called for me to do a couple of shows but I wasn't available because I was doing other shows. We finally got a chance to work together in [his stage play] Madea's Class Reunion and we've been working together ever since.

You've been there since the beginning with him, with a firsthand look along the way at how his career has exploded into this huge brand--what has it been like to witness it all unfold?

We talk about that so much. When I first started with him, we were mostly doing regular theater. And we were always at the Regal Theater [in Chicago]--we loved the Regal, by the way, and it's sad that it's not there anymore because there's so much history. But we did Madea Goes to Jail there and I started seeing his audience change; before then, he didn't have the TV shows or the movies, so to be there and witness how hard he's worked to grow his empire has been amazing.

Your amazing singing is an integral part of his shows and you've even contributed to the soundtracks for some of his feature films; musically, do you contribute in other ways, like songwriting or song selection?

In his first film, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, I sung a lot and then there's one song in that film, a cover of Joan Osborne's "What If God Was One of Us," which is a song I've been doing forever because I love it and I have my own interpretation of it. I've done a lot of voiceover things for him, too--in Diary of a Mad Black Woman and again in I Can Do Bad All By Myself--where [actress] Taraji P. Henson is singing--that's me. I haven't done any writing, but he has these ideas of what he wants to do and we make it happen.

Carla Montgomery, your character in Perry's latest stage play, is the head administrator of a home for seniors, which of course means you'll come in contact with Madea. Are there any one-on-one scenes? If so, what's it like? I'm sure it leaves the door open for plenty of ad-libbing...

Oh yes there will be ad-libs--most of those scenes come from ad-libs after a while. There is a one-on-one scene with him and it's really something because when he's in that Madea "thing," he's in that Madea thing. You can almost forget that it's Tyler because he's way in [that] mode, but because I've worked with him for so long, I know what questions to ask. You learn how to feed off each other and I know what points he likes to get across because that's what's so huge for him. Whenever I'm in a scene with him and I know there are certain points he wants to get to the audience, I know what to say. Of course we have our script, but there are things along the way when you say, "Okay, he wants to get this out," so I feed that to him.

How would you say this role differs from the other roles you've played in his productions?

Carla is a lot like me, actually, but when the show first started, she was very different from me: She was very stern, very disrespectful and [straight] to the point. She just had a job to do and the compassion that I would have, was not there. Tyler is not used to me being like that and I think that even for him, it was hard to see me be so 'hard', so we softened her a little bit and gave her a little more compassion.

With your solid resume as a mainstay in Perry's plays, are there any plans for you as far as any of his future big screen projects are concerned?

I don't know--we don't' talk about that. I have had other opportunities come to me--for film and television--which I am looking forward to venturing into. I know that it is definitely in my future because it's kind of a natural progression, but I don't know if the first time you see me on the big screen will be through one of his vehicles or another one. But you will see me on the big screen.

Let's talk about your singing and your music; most recently, you released "Let Me Be Me"--tell us about that project. Also, are you working on new music?

I am. We released "Let It Be Me" independently a little bit ago, so we have those in the trunk of the car sometimes! [Laughs]. But I'm really proud of that project because I hadn't done one in a long time because I've been kind of jaded by the music industry to some degree.

To "some degree?" How so?

I had been on major record labels since the beginning of my career--just the politics of it all... Working through a [major] record label, I was told I should do more of a "Mary J. Blige" kind of thing because that's what "my people" want to hear. I'm not just R&B; I'm jazz, I'm gospel, alternative and funk. Don't limit me and my culture because we listen to everything. But little by little, people would tell me, "You need to do another record." As time went on and you get through some real life experiences, I had stuff to say and things I wanted to get off my chest and "Let Me Be Me" was born from that. I said I wouldn't do another record, but now, I'm back. I've been working on some more stuff; because it's a form of my purpose--to touch people whatever way I can.

Speaking of "purpose," Tyler Perry is well-known for infusing inspirational or motivational messages in his work; what message do you think the audience will take away from this play?

Respect and love each other--especially the elders in your lives. Also, there's a part in the show at the end where Tyler speaks about something that I think will hit home for a lot of people: When you stop trying to control everything and let things be, whatever needs to be done, will be done.


Tyler Perry's Madea Gets A Job runs Thursday through Sunday, May 24-27 at the Arie Crown Theater, 2301 South Lake Shore Dr.; show times vary. Tickets are $25-$90 and are available at the box office or online. For more information, call 800-745-3000.

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Lo / May 22, 2012 5:37 PM

Great interview! As usual!

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

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By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
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Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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