It sounds like a set up for a joke. Mike Tyson, battered and bruised by his career as a champion boxer, by his addictions, by his ego, by life itself, walks onto the stage of the Orpheum Theatre, where people have paid good money – upwards of $110 – to listen to him talk about his tempestuous life for two hours.
If the 46-year-old “Iron Mike” (photo at right by Jerry Metellus) hadn’t already done this with some degree of success, you’d be excused for thinking this was an elaborate prank. And with the estimable Spike Lee as the director of this bizarre theatrical outing, you know there must be something interesting going on in Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth, a one-man show by a somewhat baffling man.
To my immense surprise (and even delight), there is something interesting happening at the Orpheum Theatre (a quick three-day stand from the folks at SHN). I walked into the theater not remotely a fan of Tyson’s and knowing only what I had gleaned from media coverage of his triumphs and travails for the last 25 years or so. My uninformed opinion was that he was probably a brute damaged by his rough urban upbringing and became even more brutish when the championships and the ensuing millions began pouring in.
Turns out that impression was pretty accurate, but the way Tyson tells it, with the help of a giant video screen full of images compiled by Lee, he was a thug but now he’s “domesticated.” He beings the show sitting in a spotlight while Nat “King” Cole’s “Nature Boy” plays for much longer than you expect. The audience responds like they’re in the presence of a rock star, and when the music finally ends, Tyson accepts the audience love as if he’d just performed the song himself.
He says the evening will be considerably lighter than the documentary about him James Toback’s 2008 film Tyson, and it is (mercifully), though Tyson doesn’t shy away from talking about rough stuff like his turbulent marriage to Robin Givens, his rape conviction (he says he was innocent) and prison term and the death of his 4-year-old daughter, Exodus.
Though I was able to understand about 85% of what Tyson said (much higher than I expected, actually, having only heard him on TV), the former champ is a charismatic stage presence who manages to get his points across with swagger and humor and even a little bit of heart.
My favorite line came during his extensive trash talking about Givens (promoter Don King gets his share of trash, as does boxer Mitch Green). On the screen is a paprazzo photo of Givens with her then-new boyfriend, a sweet-faced Brad Pitt. Tyson calls them the “brokedown version of Pearl Bailey and Robert Redford.”
Written by Tyson’s wife, Kiki Tyson, the show skips around in time and doesn’t arrive at a satisfying conclusion other than little Mike may be happy at last. Clean and sober for four years, Tyson is rebuilding his relationship with his eight children and is living a happier, smarter life than ever before. That’s certainly a happy ending, but Tyson’s story is hardly over.
I found myself wondering why in the world Tyson is doing a stage show about his life. It’s certainly an unlikely step in his career, which makes it interesting. And frankly, the mere fact of Tyson stepping onto a stage is theatrical given all the history he brings with him. He says he wants us to have a better understanding of him, and the show certainly helps rehabilitate his image in relatively small groups (compared to film and television).
But do we really want a better understanding of Mike Tyson, the man who’s made a life of second chances? When he’s in his 70s doing his Elaine Stritch-style autobiographical cabaret, then he’ll really have something to say about life for those of us who have never had, as he has, the opportunity to find out how horrible it is to drive a Lamborghini or what it feels or tastes like to have a piece of chomped-off ear in your mouth.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth continues through March 2 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1182 Market St.,San Francisco. Tickets are $50-$110. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.