The heated debates that ensue among men in barbershops are common to the black American experience. Most famously depicted in the 1988 comedy Coming to America, some such debates involve professional boxing. On the surface, the Frank Boudreaux play Tyson vs. Ali purports to answer the question of which of the titular champions would prevail were they to face off in their respective primes. But once the show begins, the audience finds out rather quickly that the experience reflects a deeper sense of conflict and connectivity than any verbal sparring among neighbors could articulate.
As a multimedia performance piece, Tyson vs. Ali’s dynamic visuals and unorthodox casting challenge the audience to recognize the complexities with which we should interpret the lives of these legendary athletes (and perhaps of people writ large). By employing video projections as both a backdrop and a constantly changing mosaic within the stage space, director Reid Farrington creates a viewing experience that mimics how our minds build mythologies by stringing together flashes of great moments. And as each of the actors seamlessly assume each other’s roles as Muhammed Ali and Mike Tyson throughout the show, they demonstrate the myriad ways that Ali and Tyson have been perceived, forcing the eye of the beholder to betray its own comfort for the sake of acknowledging their undeniably complex humanity.
In playing the roles of Tyson and Ali interchangeably, the actors invite the audience to identify more closely with the larger-than-life characters they are portraying, implying that if four men can share the narrative of two, then so could any of us. And the diversity among the actors debunks the perception of black men as monolithic even in a setting where a historically loaded spectacle is prominent. The paradox that this stage dynamic creates—one where physical supremacy is a function of vulnerability and brotherhood—renders the ability to dismiss the depth of character in otherwise brutish men impossible.
That Tyson vs. Ali will also offer a 3D edition to the home video release of the show confirms just how important it is to Farrington that dimensionality imbue the viewer experience. In a time where Americans are more polarized than ever, Tyson vs Ali strikes a blow in the name of sport to muscle the American psyche into thinking more critically and constructively about the legends we create.
Hell, if squabbles in barbershops can persist as an integral part of fostering community, and bloody battles in the ring can still end in an embrace of respect and camaraderie, then should the rest of us working through our differences in the name of a common purpose be so hard? Not if this show has a say in the matter.