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.

Mike Tyson reportedly planning kosher restaurant chain

Mike Tyson reportedly is planning to launch a chain of high-end kosher restaurants.

The former heavyweight boxing champ is in talks with businessman Moshe Malamud, owner of the Franklin Mint and chairman of the Asian technology service provider emaimai, to break into the kosher-food business, the New York Post reported last Friday.

“They discussed the concept as well as the name, but nothing was finalized,” a representative of the kosher Manhattan restaurant Solo, where the men dined, told the Post.

Tyson decided last spring to begin following a strict vegan diet, which he says gives him more energy.

Films: Documentary captures young Orthodox boxer’s journey

In the ring, at the front, boxer Barney Ross packed a punch

“Barney Ross” by Douglas Century (Schocken and Nextbook, $19.95).

To many sports fans, Shawn Green remains the only recognizable Jewish professional athlete. Green follows a relatively short but impressive line of Jewish baseball stars, one every generation so it seems, kind of like the Jewish seat on the Supreme Court in the pre-Clinton era. For every Louis Brandeis, there was a Hank Greenberg. For every Felix Frankfurter, there was an Al Rosen.

But boxing, that most primal of all sports, was once rife with Jews. In “Barney Ross,” a biography of the eponymous 1930s boxing champion, author Douglas Century cites a stunning statistic — in the 1920s and 1930s, one-third of all professional fighters were Jewish. Given that Jews accounted then for roughly 3 percent of the nation’s population, that figure seems almost incomprehensible.

Yet it is true. What African Americans are to present-day basketball, Jews were to boxing in the period between the two World Wars.

Century, whose two previous books dealt with New York’s criminal underworld, is also Jewish. The 41-year-old, Canadian-born author said over the phone from New York that he grew up with “a pride in being Jewish” and heard stories from his uncles about the great Jewish boxers of the Depression era.

When Century was about 12, he said, he got his first pair of boxing gloves. He flailed them about as he watched Muhammad Ali’s classic fights with Leon Spinks in Ali’s waning days as heavyweight champion.

In “Barney Ross,” the third book in Schocken and Nextbook’s new Jewish Encounters Series — after Robert Pinsky’s “The Life of David” and Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland’s “Maimonides” — Century writes about classic fights from a much earlier era, the famous bouts pitting Ross against Tony Canzoneri and Jimmy McLarnin. Century devotes parts two and three of his slim, highly readable book to the legendary matches involving this troika of fighters, each representing his own immigrant community: one Jewish, one Italian and one Irish.

Century explained that he chose to write about Ross rather than, say, Benny Leonard, who is considered by most boxing scholars as the greatest Jewish fighter of all time, because Ross transcended boxing and Jewishness.

Ross was not only a boxing champion. He was a Marine war hero at Guadalcanal, volunteering for the service at the relatively advanced age of 33 and winning a Silver Star for holding off a platoon of Japanese soldiers, while his fellow Marines lay dying or incapacitated. He ran guns to Israel and tried to set up a Jewish-American brigade to fight in the Middle East at the time of Israel’s War of Independence. He went public with a morphine addiction resulting from his war wounds and later, after overcoming his habit, became the poster boy for recovery from addiction. In short, he was both the most overtly Zionist and the most American of all Jewish athletes of that time.

Century has plumbed library archives and combed the Warren Commission report for fascinating testimony from Ross on the subject of childhood mate, Jack Ruby, who, before becoming infamous for shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, grew up with Ross in the Maxwell Street ghetto in Chicago, where they both ran errands for the mob. Century also spent much time interviewing Ross’ late brother, George, another prizefighter, who only recently died.

It is clear that Century loves his subject. That fact came through over the phone when he referred to the boxer almost intimately as “Barney,” as if the late fighter were a relative or long-lost friend. It also comes through in the text itself, which contains wonderfully lyrical passages.

When discussing Ross’ rope-jumping talents, Century writes that Ross was “doing skipping routines so intricate that the jump rope appeared to become a kind of hissing viper.”

He refers to Ross’ decision to join the Marines as “some jagged riddle resting in that smoke-filled interregnum between his championship reign and the return to America as a decorated war hero.”

Though the book features such lapidary strokes, it also seems to have been rushed to print. A good copy editor should have noticed a number of bad misspellings, including the last names of Clifford Odets and Martin Scorsese. Similarly, a good fact checker should have corrected such errors as Mushy Callahan, the junior welterweight champion, being referred to as a welterweight, or Jackie Fields, the welterweight champion, being hailed as champion of the lightweight division.

These mistakes aside, the book will restore the pride of many Jewish boys, who doubtless have no idea that Jews once presided over the lower weight classes of the sweet science.

On the phone, Century suggested that this might be a Zeitgeist moment for bringing back the Jewish fighters. He said this partly because of all the tough Israeli boxers coming to America. As part of his research for the book, Century trained with several Sephardic Israelis running a boxing gym in Hell’s Kitchen. The author, who said he has “delicate hands like a pianist,” could not throw a left hook. “They called me an uncoordinated Ashkenaz goof.”

In addition to the welcome infusion of Israeli immigrants, Century is comforted knowing that the Marines recently inducted Ross into their sports Hall of Fame and that there is talk of another movie based on Ross’ life (the first one, “Monkey on My Back,” was released in 1957). Even two recent books written about the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fights examine the prevalence of Jews as fighters, fight fans and fight managers in the Depression.

Jews may never again dominate a sport like they dominated boxing in this country in the 1920s and 1930s. However, it is important to note that that was the second great era of Jewish fighters, as Century nicely points out in his book. The first occurred in England in the late 1700s and early 1800s, when Daniel Mendoza reigned. And before that, of course, there was Bar Kochba, Judah Maccabee, Samson and the greatest warrior of all, King David.

When it comes to fighting prowess, Jews may have a greater lineage than many of us ever realized.

‘Cinderella’ Villain Not Such a Bad Guy

The upcoming “Cinderella Man” chronicles the fall and rise of Depression-era heavyweight champion James Braddock, but the movie is as likely to revive the memory of another title holder, “Jewish” boxer Max Baer.

In the climactic scene, the movie depicts the 15-round fight in 1935 between Braddock (Russell Crowe), the victorious underdog, and a menacing, beady-eyed Baer (Craig Bierko).

Baer’s greatest fight was in June 1933, when he faced the heavily favored German, Max Schmeling. Hitler had come to power a few months earlier and the Nazis were busy smearing Stars of David on Jewish-owned stores.

When Baer strutted into the Yankee Stadium ring, his trunks sported a prominent Star of David, and he then proceeded to demolish Schmeling, knocking him out in the 10th.

This pugilistic victory, coming in the depth of the Depression and amid rising anti-Semitism in Europe and the United States, lifted the spirits of Jews throughout the world, regardless of Baer’s actual Jewishness. His father was Jewish, but the boxer was raised in a non-Jewish household — more on that later.

In the Ron Howard-directed film, with a screenplay by Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman, Baer is portrayed as the designated bad guy to deepen the contrast to the gutsy, family-loving, Irish-American Braddock.

Although the boxing scenes are realistically staged, the movie essentially tells the story of a man overcoming defeat and poverty through his own courage and the devotion of a loving wife.

Except for ardent fans of the sweet science, the most wrenching scenes are of Depression-ridden America, with men clawing for a few hours of work and cops demolishing the shantytown in New York’s Central Park.

Despite intensive training and great cinematography, the 41-year-old Crowe is not fully convincing as the younger Braddock. But the actor, complete with New Jersey accent, is at his best as a poor, hungry down-but-not-outer, whose comeback made him the idol of working-class and jobless Americans and earned him the “Cinderella Man” sobriquet from writer Damon Runyon.

Renee Zellweger, as Braddock’s wife, Mae, has little to do but look noble and supportive as she tries to raise three kids while her husband is reduced to asking for handouts from the government and old pals.

The most impressive performance is delivered by Paul Giamatti (“Sideways”) as Braddock’s loyal Jewish manager, Joe Gould.

Bierko has the muscle and face to play Baer, but his character comes across as a playboy and a clown, which Baer frequently was, and as mean-spirited, which he wasn’t.

Baer, who carried the burden of having caused the deaths of two opponents with his lethal straight right, is depicted telling Mae Braddock, just before the fight with her husband, “You’re too pretty to be a widow.”

When Mae shows her shock and indignation, the screen Baer follows up leeringly with, “Maybe I can comfort you afterwards.”

According to sports historians and an interview with Baer’s son, this kind of cruelty was not in the character of the champion.

Except for fleeting glimpses of the Star of David on Baer’s trunks, which the boxer displayed in every fight after the victory over Schmeling, the movie does not touch on his ethnic background.

Baer’s genealogy has been frequently debated and misconstrued, but was clarified by the fighter’s son, Max Baer Jr., better known to 1960s TV audiences as Jethro Bodine on “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

Phoning from Las Vegas, the younger Baer said that the champ’s father, Jacob Baer, was a German-Jewish immigrant, who worked as a butcher, cattle dealer and rancher in Colorado and California. Jacob Baer married a Catholic woman and their children were raised in her faith, though the household wasn’t particularly religious.

“When I was around 10 and living in a Jewish neighborhood in Sacramento, I came across a boy wearing a yarmulke,” recalled Baer Jr. “So I went home and asked my mother why that kid was wearing a beanie without a propeller.”

The idea of wearing a Star of David for the Schmeling fight, Baer said, “came from my father’s Jewish manager. At that time, the great boxers were Italian, Irish or Jewish, and there was a lot of ethnic pride and rivalry among the fans, especially in New York. I think it all started as a publicity ploy, but over time my father might have convinced himself that he was defending the Jewish people.”

The younger Baer described his late father as cocky, “sort of like Muhammad Ali,” who liked to clown around and would rather party than train.

But Baer trained hard for the Schmeling match. After watching that fight, the legendary Jack Dempsey observed that Baer was so good that night he could have beaten anybody in the world.Whatever could be said against Baer, he was never petty or mean-spirited, contrary to the movie depiction, said his son.

“My father hardly ever bore a grudge, and after he and another fighter would beat each other to a pulp, my father would go to the other guy’s dressing room and invite him to a party,” he said. “After he lost the world championship to Braddock, my father said he was glad that the title went to a guy who had to support a large family.”

“Cinderella Man” opens nationwide on June 3.Â