THE PLAY'S THE THING

Gina Scott likes to keep her customers entertained. But she refuses to play rap music at her South L.A. beauty shop, Studio 412--too much profanity, degrading to women--or to show such videos as "Soul Plane," with Snoop Dogg. Sex and blunt-smoking don't sit well with the churchgoing sisters under the hair dryers. But Scott's got other options: her cabinet is stacked with DVD versions of stage plays by the likes of Bishop T. D. Jakes, Tyler Perry and David E. Talbert. These ministers, playwrights and actors don't have the star power of a Denzel Washington, but they've struck gold by mixing a little Hollywood glitz with a lot of old-time religion. "This is what I show my clients," says Scott, 39, "because it's about something--about life--without all the foolishness. I want to watch something entertaining and not be offended or embarrassed."'

So Scott--with her three kids--was the first in line to see the new film "Woman Thou Art Loosed," based on a stage play by Perry--based, in turn, on a self-help book by Jakes--about a girl who's sexually molested by her stepfather, drifts into prostitution and drugs, and lands in jail. If your idea of inoffensive family entertainment is "Mary Poppins," this is strong stuff. But in the black community, such plays belong to a familiar tradition. For the past two decades, gritty but uplifting dramas and gospel musicals have toured what is frequently called the chitlin circuit, drawing millions of customers to see such stars as Cecily Tyson, Billy Dee Williams, Tyra Banks and Babyface. "These plays have offered African-Americans a night out as a family for years," says Jakes. He believes this under-the-radar drama, with its strong stories, inspiring messages and affordable budgets, points the way to the future of black film--and many people in black Hollywood agree.

Such plays as "Woman Thou Art Loosed" and Perry's "Diary of a Mad Black Woman"--in which a husband leaves his wife for her best friend and then becomes paralyzed in an accident--are forthrightly Christian. The constant themes are drug abuse, domestic violence and loss of faith; the one salvation is Jesus. Will they play as well on the big screen as on the small stage? Mel Gibson's "The Passion" proved the market was there, but Gibson is a mainstream Hollywood professional. Onstage, the problem of poorly written scripts and undertrained actors has been finessed by the rousing gospel singing of such soloists as Shirley Caesar and Bebe and Cece Winans. Even Jakes admits that these low-budget productions will have to be spiffed up for the less forgiving medium of film--and less forgiving audiences.

Still, "Woman Thou Art Loosed" made roughly $15 million in its onstage version--not to mention the huge sales of Jakes's original book, and his popular church-based self-help program--and black investors, generally frozen out of Hollywood, took notice when talk began about a film. "It was a good business opportunity, plain and simple," says Reuben Cannon, the casting director who produced "Woman" and Spike Lee's "Get on the Bus." "In a way we really love that this has been a secret from the mainstream, because it's a chance for African-Americans to show support for one another. It's truly the community proving that everything we need is right here in the community." Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover, Cedric the Entertainer and lawyer Johnnie Cochran all chipped in to meet "Woman's" nearly $2 million budget. (Director Michael Shulz shot the film in just 12 days.) Despite dismissive reviews, it's already made back twice the money.

But of course it's not all about the Benjamins. Most of the investors, says Reuben, were black business people, "people far removed from Hollywood--who don't even live in California or really know the industry. They really just wanted to see this story told in our own way." Kimberly Elise, who plays the main character in "Woman Thou Art Loosed," sees such films as a way for black actors and actresses who don't happen to be named Washington or Berry to expand their horizons. "I like the fact that a black woman was a central figure in a film about a serious topic that impacts all groups of people, no matter what their race," says Elise, who played Washington's love interest in "The Manchurian Candidate." "I wasn't familiar with Bishop Jakes or his ministry, but I knew the story would touch somebody's life." She's talking about people like Gina Scott and her customers--and there are a lot of them out there, just waiting.

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