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Mike Tyson doesn’t waste any time addressing audience concerns in his one-man Broadway show. After assuring us that we’ll all be leaving with our ears intact, he comically voices what everyone’s been thinking: “What the hell is Mike Tyson going to do onstage?”
The answer is evident in the title of this self-serving evening directed by filmmaker Spike Lee. In Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth, the former heavyweight champ is determined to deliver his side of the story, while settling some scores along the way.
The results are weirdly fascinating, and actually in keeping with a long tradition of pugilists retreating to the stage after their fighting days are over. Indeed, Tyson’s show is not even the first such event to hit New York this summer; he was beaten to the punch by the “Raging Bull” himself, 90-year-old Jake LaMotta, who briefly appeared in a bizarrely head-spinning evening of reminiscences and songs called Lady and the Champ.
The atmosphere is set before the show begins, with the theater festooned with Brooklyn-centric banners and a DJ situated in a side box spinning classic records by the likes of Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson. When the curtain rises, Tyson, dapperly dressed in a dark suit, is sitting pensively on a stool as we hear Nat “King” Cole croon “Nature Boy.”
But the mellowness doesn’t last for long, as he proceeds to deliver a frequently profane, sometimes draggy two-hour monologue, written by his wife Kiki, which is punctuated by film footage and photographs projected on a large screen.
Boasting about his standing as the youngest heavyweight champion of all time while assuring us that he’s no longer the angry young man he used to be (“I don’t even want to get into an argument”), he begins with an account of his hardscrabble years growing up in the tough Brownsville section of Brooklyn, where he quickly established a reputation as a formidable brawler while getting into constant scrapes with the law.
He wound up in the local juvenile detention center so often, he jokes, “It was like Cheers to me … everybody knew my name.”
But all that changed when he began to be mentored by the legendary Cus D’Amato, who immediately saw the strapping teenager’s potential and set him on a path to boxing greatness. Tyson’s account of his close relationship with the elderly, ornery trainer, while peppered with humor — “I thought he was a perv, or something,” he says about their first meeting — is one of the evening’s more moving elements.
Unfortunately, it’s contrasted with his lengthy harangue about his former wife Robin Givens, including a comically detailed description of spotting her making out with Brad Pitt in a car during their divorce proceedings. But despite his bitter insults directed toward both Givens and her mother, there’s otherwise little that’s revelatory other than his assertion that they continued to have sexual relations — he puts it rather more bluntly — even after they were separated.
Tyson delivers an impassioned denial of the rape charge for which he was convicted in 1992. But he says little about his time in jail, other than to recite a laundry list of the many celebrities who visited him there, including — in a mention that gets a big laugh as a photo of her beaming face is projected behind him — Florence Henderson.
Another figure who receives a heaping dose of his vitriol is Don King. “I made a deal with the devil,” he says of the controversial promoter, whose distinctive speaking style he mockingly imitates.
Surprisingly, there’s very little attention paid to his many bouts, even his notorious 1997 ear-chomping of Evander Holyfield, of which he says simply, “I snapped.” He spends far more time vividly describing his 1988 street brawl with boxer Mitch “Blood” Green, who he claims was high on angel dust.
At one point, Tyson does some shadow boxing, explaining that, “I’m gonna do this slow cause I’m an old motherf—er.” And he does indeed seem to be physically struggling at times, frequently out of breath and constantly wiping sweat off his head with a handkerchief he clutches throughout.
Lee’s staging is mostly unobtrusive, with atmospheric lighting and musical cues being the dominant element. They often seemed to come as a surprise to Tyson, which probably reflected the fact that this was merely the second Broadway performance. There’s also some original black-and-white film footage, including shots of pigeons that evoke the fighter’s longtime fondness for them.
That the evening is clearly meant to be a statement of redemption is made clear in the final moments, when Tyson emotionally talks about the death of his 4-year-old daughter, his current sobriety and his determination to be a better husband and father. It provides an appropriately neat climax to this theatrical evening devoted to an otherwise very messy life.
Presented by James L. Nederlander, Spike Lee & Terry Allen Kramer
Cast: Mike Tyson
Writer: Kiki Tyson
Director: Spike Lee
Executive producers: Kiki Tyson, Adam Steck
Scenic designer: Timothy R. Mackabee
Lighting designer: Natasha Katz
Projection designer: Erik Pearson
Sound designer: Raymond Schilke.
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