SMILE, AND SMILE, AND BE A VILLAIN
Since civilization stopped executing them outright, the notorious have always had the fallback of a second act as freakshow attractions. From 1883 well into the first decade of the Twentieth Century, Americans and Europeans paid to see Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, featuring old Indian fighters and actual Indians; many of those on the bill had committed shocking atrocities. Sitting Bull, the biggest draw of all, had defeated the great hero Custer at a time when few whites would admit approval. But they sure lined up to look at the bad man.
So it’s not impossible to imagine someone spending up to $500 (Super VIP Ringside Platinum Seating) to watch a convicted rapist tell stories. But now imagine that convicted rapist and drug addict had never been the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. Imagine that he had remained a street thug and had been convicted of raping not Miss Black Rhode Island but a McDonald’s cashier. Imagine Mike Tyson had bitten the ear of his postman, on the sidewalk, instead of Evander Holyfield’s in a Las Vegas ring. Imagine that, following his release from prison, this nobody had been quoted in the Los Angeles Times admitting to a fairly recent beating he gave to several prostitutes during a morphine, cocaine, and Cialis orgy. It’s hard at that point to picture anyone crossing the street to hear Mr. Tyson’s famous voice.
But Mike Tyson was the youngest heavyweight champion on record, and a masculine icon to a generation of young men. He was one of the great 80s stories of brutal and conspicuous consumption. His is the ghetto dream of success, and its Greek tragedy. And, thirty years after his escape from a reformatory upbringing, he filled most of the 2,700 seats at the Pantages last night.
Viewed as a piece of traditional American Theater of Redemption, this one-man show fails utterly. But it would be a mistake to think that director Spike Lee or Mr. Tyson himself have intended anything like apology. The tenor is one of defiance, of celebration that a black man born to a drug-addicted prostitute and raised on some of the worst streets in Brooklyn should have made so much of himself. That he acknowledges his fall from grace is not to be congratulated – it is the stuff of public record. That he does not go further than acknowledgment, into repentance, may strike some as disconcerting.
But it is precisely when Mr. Tyson is telling stories on himself that this show becomes most honest, and therefore most watchable. Much of his script, credited to his wife Kiki Tyson, strives to toe a solemn, articulate line that is frankly beyond the capacity of this performer. What comes across is an uncouth reprobate speaking lines. When he talks about getting into a 4 am fistfight at a Harlem haberdashery, though, or about his desire to injure his old promoter Don King and former wife Robin Givens, a raw emotional resonance sells the material. This is the Theater of Transgression, a morbid offshoot of schadenfreude that can excite and charm even those who came to hate the show – because everybody likes to see the bad man.
Unlike its Wild West antecedents, Undisputed Truth offers no galloping broncos and very little spectacle of any kind except the sight of an odd creature with a face tattoo successfully speaking in complete sentences. It ran on Broadway for just ten days, and its touring incarnation is unimpressive. Typical of Spike Lee joints, the few technical elements are pretty rough: music cues (obvious choices by Stevie Wonder and Queen, among others) lurch into the proceedings and fade out after playing at a volume distracting from rather than supporting the monologue. The frequent video projections look to have been collected indiscriminately and edited in a hurry: travelogue snapshots like a childhood home – “White people live there now” – and various gyms and graveyards. It’s too bad more effort and creativity weren’t spent helping build a show around this basically inarticulate man. But if you are the sort of person who likes clapping every time someone tells you of his accomplishments, Mike Tyson and Spike Lee definitely have the ticket for you.
photos by Jerry Metellus and Merrell Virgin VSPOT Photography
Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth
presented by James L. Nederlander at the Pantages in Hollywood
scheduled to end on March 10, 2013
for tickets, call 800.982.2787 or visit http://wwwHollywoodPantages.com
national tour continues through May 5, 2013
for cities and schedule, visit http://tysonontour.com/