At one point in his touring one-man show, Mike Tyson, the ear-biter, convicted rapist, all-around thug, cocaine user and former heavyweight champion of the world, shows a picture of himself from 1976. He's wearing one of the bomber jackets of the era and his then-unblemished face looks warm, sweet, smart and pretty. In that revealing moment of an entertainment far, far more interesting than you might anticipate, you come to see that despite its macho embrace of organized personal destruction, its nomenclature of knockouts and killers, the world of boxing has only ever been mastered by those who understand the need to blend the masculine and the feminine. Tyson always knew how to hit, of course, but he always was a more natural dancer than most people knew.
Tyson calls his Broadway show, which had the first of two Chicago performances Friday night, "Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth" and it is filled with verbiage along the lines of, here I am standing before you, acknowledging my mistakes, turning things around and presenting an honest picture of my life.
But it's not hard to offer up a truth when none of your antagonists around are there to present their sides. Tyson might say he wants to offer no excuses, but, like all of us, he has a version of events in his life that favor himself. He paints himself as a victim of Don King as an explanation of why a man who once had $400 million—yes, $400 million—in his bank account ended up filing for bankruptcy.
He argues, with video evidence, that were it not for a long count from the referee, he would have knocked out James Buster Douglas instead of being the loser. He insists that he did not rape Desiree Washington when she was just 18, and throws in a line about how he was not the first man she had accused of the crime, evidence that, he claimed, the court just would not hear. He argues that his ex-wife Robin Givens was a "tramp" (he said he caught her with Brad Pitt) who remained addicted to sex with Tyson, even when she was unloading to Barbara Walters in one of the most uncomfortable joint interviews in the history of television. He even suggests mitigating circumstances ("he was head-butting me") for that famous chomp on Evander Holyfield's ear, a moment when he jumped the shark, his public turned on the apparent monster it had created and he went, he tells us, from being "the tenth most hated man in America to the first most hated man." True, that.
But at 46, Tyson, clearly, has developed an ability to see this man he once was as a kind of character, a person wholly separate from the man he now has become. And one of the paradoxes, you might say, that gives his autobiographical show such theatrical potency, as compared with the typical booze-drugs-and-dysfunctional-rich-parents childhoods that dominate the genre, is that Tyson really has a tale of interest. I mean, such a life! He was reported to have been arrested 30 times before the age of 12 (that bomber-jacket moment was brief and the detention center became, he says, "just like Cheers, where everybody knows your name"). He has experienced the gutter, fame, fortune, total dominance of a grand old sport, the inside of a prison, humiliation, reconciliation, the loss of his own child, you name it, he's been through it. And there he is, standing before you, wearing the years on his face, a passage of time, a trip to vulnerability that no tattoo can cover.
Tyson is not, in case you were in doubt, a traditional rhetorician. At one point Friday in his two-hour show, he disappeared briefly into the wings and came back sucking an apparent cough-drop, and if there's one thing harder than understanding Tyson, it's understanding Tyson sucking a cough-drop. Several times in the show, you can see him steel himself and revert to chunks of memorized text. But even those moments are strikingly poignant. The director, Spike Lee, has filled this piece with very powerful images on a huge screen—these are not victory-lap reels, but a real picture of a man, a time, a place, a celebrity culture roiling with hypocrisy. Lee lets Tyson be Tyson for the most part, and there is plenty of humor and tall tales in the show, but he also subtlety suggests that Tyson was just the malleable piece of fighting putty that the great trainer Cus D'Amato, and, by extension, boxing, America, needed to vent its own desires, hungers and frustrations. At one point, Tyson talks about the ongoing requirement that he register as a sex-offender at the local police station, where, invariably he says, the police-officers pull out their cameras and fetch their kids for a photo opp. Such is the trump-card of celebrity, although Tyson sees it as proof he is benign. Perhaps it's both.
This show is no doubt making Tyson a lot of money, but it also is costing him something, especially as he recounts the loss of his child. It goes rather deeper than you'd think. Actually, Tyson is rather deeper than you'd think. And he has plenty of energy. He does not sit in a chair and tell stories. He performs his version of the truth. He is getting paid, and paying in return. And one warms to the equality of that equation.
The most haunting image in the show is the picture of Tyson's troubled mother—he tells us it is the only picture he has of her—who, like most of the people in Tyson's life, struggled to express their affection and made a premature exit from the ring. She stares out, a total enigma. Her son, to his great credit and having pulled himself from the very brink, is trying to be otherwise now.
"Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth" can also be seen Saturday night at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St. Call 800-775-2000 or visit Broadwayinchicago.com.Copyright © 2015, RedEye