Female boxer goes toe-to-toe with violence in ‘The Wholehearted’
In 2012, playwright and director Deborah Stein was riveted by a conversation with her artistic partner, Suli Holum, who described a startling newspaper article she had read on a female boxer, Christy Martin.
Martin, a world champion, had been the first woman in that sport to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated. But outside the ring in 2010, she was brutally stabbed and shot by her husband, who also was her trainer. He left her for dead in their home, but Martin managed to crawl out to the street and get to a hospital. She healed and spoke of her desire to make a boxing comeback in a moving interview on ESPN, but her dream never came true after she lost subsequent fights, including one in which she broke her hand in nine places.
Stein was fascinated by this story of a celebrated fighter who had used her fists to make a living but who nevertheless became the victim of brutal violence. She was captivated, as well, by the saga of a survivor that did not end with the kind of victory widely proffered in popular culture.
“Martin’s experience hardly fits the mold of the expected Hollywood redemption saga,” Stein, 39, said during a recent telephone interview. “Those tend to be false narratives. Something horrible happens to a character, and then something strong inside them allows them to triumph somehow. But that’s not actually how traumatic experiences work. If you experience trauma in some form, that trauma will be with you for the rest of your life. It’s like a scar. So Suli and I wanted to move away from the story of a survivor to a story of survival — what really [can] happen to you when you have the rest of your life to live every day with that experience.”
The result is their play “The Wholehearted,” written and co-directed by Stein and co-directed and performed by Holum. It’s not Martin’s story, Stein said, but rather a fiction inspired by a number of female boxers as well as survivors of domestic violence. The play will be performed at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City from Dec. 2-11.
The one-woman show revolves around the character of Dee Crosby, a world champion boxer, whose body and career are shattered after her husband viciously assaults her. The show depicts Crosby’s pain inside and outside of the ring as she relives her past boxing wins, tries to reconnect with her female lover, Carmen, and plots revenge against her husband and trainer, who recently was released from prison. Holum portrays all of the characters as a variety of cameras onstage stream footage of Crosby’s past and present life.
“The play asks questions about who in our culture gets to be violent and in what ways,” Stein said. “There’s culturally acceptable violence and the glorification of violence and how that actually plays out in the human experience. The play also asks questions about who gets to tell our story and if it’s possible to take back control of our own narrative. The sports news footage that we use throughout the [show] is the cable news version of Dee Crosby’s story, but she is trying to tell a different version of her story. I don’t think she entirely succeeds, but she desperately wants to tell her story and not be a victim in that way.
“But we don’t answer any of these uncomfortable questions. We want the audience talking about them instead.”
Creating more questions than answers is how Stein views her work as particularly Jewish. She was raised in Queens, N.Y., by a secular mother whose father fled pogroms in Poland and by a father who had grown up in an observant family in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn.
“My parents had two polar-opposite relationships to [their heritage], so when they raised me, they tried to find a way of thinking about Judaism that matched their own liberal-humanism approach to the world,” Stein said.
They eventually chose a Reconstructionist synagogue community. For Stein’s bat mitzvah project, the budding writer took photographs of Russian-Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood.
Stein’s earlier play “Natasha and the Coat,” was inspired by her own experience of living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in her early 20s, where tensions arose between ultra-Orthodox Jews and young hipsters. “There were incidents where women riding their bikes in the summer, wearing short shorts and a halter top, were yelled at by [Chasidim] saying their clothing was inappropriate,” Stein recalled. “Natasha and the Coat” tells of a young, hip, secular Jew who falls in love with an Orthodox dry cleaner who must choose whether to become involved with her or to remain true to his family.
Stein also wrote a 2009 play, “Chaplin: The Son of Isidore and Hanna Thornstein,” about a group of Jewish filmmakers in 1930s Paris inspired by Charlie Chaplin. She now is working on a piece about Jewish women immigrants, in part based on her émigré grandfather’s experience.
Stein has received a grant to research his story in Poland next summer, when she will return to her grandfather’s village as well as attend a Yiddish music festival, along with her husband, Andrew Horwitz, the program director of the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.
Her collaboration with Holum began when the two women attended Swarthmore College in the early 2000s. They worked together on two plays with the Pig Iron Theatre Company, which Holum co-founded while still an undergraduate, but went their separate ways until they chanced to run into each other at a dinner party in New York around 2009. Their first play — also inspired by a newspaper article — starred Holum as a woman who discovers that her son does not share her DNA. The pair founded their production company, Stein | Holum Projects, in 2010.
As research for “The Wholehearted,” Holum trained to become a boxer and she and Stein “watched a lot of boxing videos, domestic violence videos and love stories set in rural desert communities in California or the American South,” Stein said.
“We brought our designers into the process very early on,” she continued. “When they said they wanted to work with live cameras onstage, we realized this could be a play, in part, about self-portraiture. [In her head,] Dee Crosby is the star of a big Hollywood biopic about her life, and the tension comes from the conflict between that desire and her reality.”
The play ends on a relatively downbeat note, which is deliberately different from “the Joseph Campbell-style hero’s journey,” Stein said. “In Campbell’s mythology, the hero gets to slay the dragon. In ‘The Wholehearted,’ Dee Crosby may or she may not.”
“The Wholehearted” will be performed at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City from Dec. 2-11. For tickets and more information, visit the Kirk Douglas Theatre.