07/31/2012 03:21 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2012

Can One Make Theatrical Penance?

"Convicted rapist Mike Tyson starts previews tonight on Broadway," went the tweet, and there's no arguing a single one of those words, as they are absolute fact. Since Tyson's one-man event was announced, his conviction and jail sentence for rape has been prominent in accounts of the 12-performance gig, and surely they're not being copied from any press release.

When actor James Barbour withdrew from a production of The Rocky Horror Show at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre last summer, the ostensible reason was to, as the Los Angeles Times reported, "deal with issues of his wife's pregnancy." But that was viewed by many as suspect, since a public uproar had begun in the days just prior, when the local community learned of Barbour's charge of sexual misconduct with a child, which was plea bargained to two counts of endangering the welfare of a minor.

Charles S. Dutton served time in prison for various charges, most notably for manslaughter. Yes, the esteemed Dutton killed someone.

Now I am not capable of discussing the moral relativism of these crimes, or the particulars of the cases and their outcomes; I decry them all. I make no excuses for any of them, nor am I personally seeking to rehabilitate or further vilify anyone or their reputations. What strikes me though is how two of these men are, apparently, forever labeled with their crimes, while another would appear to have transcended them. One is embraced in the theatre community, one's career is surely severely impaired, while the third has now, as a novice, turned to Broadway for the kind of career renaissance that fading movie stars have sometimes sought.

Perhaps a key differentiation is that Dutton's crimes occurred before he came to theatre, that he found theatre in prison, before he was known. His story only mattered to people once he had wowed audiences in August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, committing manslaughter on stage no less; Dutton also had an august mentor in Lloyd Richards. Barbour and Tyson were already known (Tyson was truly famous for sports, not theatre) and their crimes were sexual, which may well be more unforgiveable than murder in the court of public opinion; every week Law and Order: Special Victims Unit reminds us that sexually based offenses are "especially heinous." Dutton has always expressed remorse over the man who died at his hands; Barbour has tried to move on (although he is required to notify employers); Tyson hasn't necessarily made the public penance some might desire.

Whatever his show may be, Tyson is in a likely a no-win situation. If he ignores his crime, he will be accused of glossing over that part of his biography (and could be considered to be profiting from it with the show); if he rationalizes it or attempts to defend himself, he will refuel the outrage that has never fully settled down; if he makes light of it, he will be condemned.

These different histories are far from identical, which is why I can draw no conclusion in which they are united. Indeed, I can only raise their apparent differences within the uniting realm of stage entertainment. Yet I read countless stories of prison programs in which theatre is a rehabilitative aid, and I marvel at the stories that emerge from such programs, about men finding themselves not necessarily as career artists, but through the therapeutic and emotionally revealing process of theatre. So I wonder about the role that theatre plays, as therapy, as career, as vehicle, as another convicted criminal comes to Broadway tonight. Can people transcend their past through theatre, can they come to terms with it, and will audiences accept them if they do? Or are we always in the jury box, dozens upon dozens of angry men and women all, rendering our own particular verdict on a case by case basis?