Robin Givens arrives for rehearsals at Southwest Arts Center shielded by neither a posse nor a speck of makeup, even knowing in advance that there's a reporter and a photographer to talk to and pose for before she steps foot on the stage.
The play is "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf," but even while alerting all within germ's reach that she's catching a summer cold, she looks and sounds radiant, like the rainbow is indeed enuf, thank you very much. She smiles easily and often, her cheekbones sparked into liftoff.
Michael Jackson's death is new in the news spin cycle, and the instantly obsessive coverage brings to mind that it wasn't that long ago that Givens was starring in her own media-infatuated soap opera, during the waning days of her marriage to boxer Mike Tyson.
Actress-director Jasmine Guy admits she thought of Givens for Ntozake Shange's 1975 choreopoem of female empowerment, specifically for the "anchor" role of Lady in Orange, because of the actress' Greek-tragedy-in-the-media-maelstrom life.
"She understands being gawked at, ostracized and being looked at and not being heard," Guy says.
But Givens, who barely knew Guy and was surprised to get her call pitching the True Colors Theatre Company production, is quick to point out that all that jazz was then and her life's a lot different now.
"You know, I'm 44 years old and I'm finally feeling comfortable in my own skin," attests the former Playboy cover girl. "I thought it was going to happen at 40. I blew out the candles, and I waited for the magic. [But now,] this is me. You want to take my picture, I have no makeup on. You want me to do this play, I'm not sure I know what I'm doing, but I want to be here."
"As far as the hurt," she continues, "yeah, I do feel that there's such a part of me that clearly has been hurt. But I'm at the point where I'm wanting to move past it, not live in it."
If the positively positive Givens sometimes sounds like she's voicing affirmations from the therapist's couch, she doesn't come off like she's trying to persuade herself or you. Instead, she sounds like the divorced mother of two "grounded," tennis-playing sons who shuttles between homes in New York and Sarasota, Fla., and other places where acting takes her — happy to be working, supporting a family, stretching creatively, seeing the world and, well, just plain living life.
All this despite the fact that the dirty laundry from her marriage to Tyson, which ended in 1989, got hung on the line yet again this year in the critically lauded documentary "Tyson."
Givens herself aired out details of the boxer's physical and emotional abuse in her 2007 memoir, "Grace Will Lead Me Home," but writing about it was an act of healing. There was nothing nurturing in the renewed charges on various blogs from the boxer's fervent fans after the release of "Tyson" that she's a golddigger and a — well &mdash worse.
Givens, who hasn't seen the documentary or scanned the blogs, expresses surprise that the haters are back ("It's easier to blame somebody else than hold somebody accountable for their own demons"), but she doesn't let it block her sunshine.
"I mean, Michael's a part of my life," she acknowledges. "I think in many respects, we're going to forever be connected. ... But I remember Oprah Winfrey saying to me, 'Truth will always come to be known.' And that's how I feel. ...
"And I feel like in many respects that certain things were a blessing for me, you know at a very young age to [live a] tragedy," she continues. "Because it kind of put me on a good path. Ba-boom, it was either going to kill me or make me stronger."
She does a lot of work for women's causes, and appeared on CNN's "Larry King" after Chris Brown's assault of girlfriend Rihanna, trying to make sense of senseless violence. She says she focused on her own experience "because I remember when people I didn't know used to comment on me, and I'd go, I've never met this person."
If she's gotten more savvy at navigating the celebrity circus, that's a skill that could come in handy in one potential gig. She's signed a development deal with Oprah's former executive producer for a TV show to be determined. She's also acted some for Atlanta's Tyler Perry, whom she calls a "miracle" for his mold-breaking success outside Hollywood.
And now she's working again far from La-la-land, acting for Guy, who in part sold Givens by boldly telling her, "Artistically, you need this."
Even though the two connected via long distance — as African-American actresses over 40 and single moms — Guy was surprised when Givens called back and said yes.
"I started to cry over the phone because she's entrusting somebody with a lot, and going into such an unknown situation," the director says. "And you don't want to look bad, you want to be taken care of, be in a safe situation where you can fall and get back up again and not have everybody in your business."
But Givens is not only a Broadway pro ("Chicago") but a veteran of having people in her business. Touched by a plum part served on a silver platter, she was ready to risk.
"I just sort of felt like, you know, life is short," Givens says. "When you're younger, you go, 'Oh, forget about that opportunity, another one will come up.' But maybe this is the opportunity."
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