The worlds of drama and sports collide in X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story), a new play at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Playwright KJ Sanchez is a lifelong football fan, and her collaborator Jenny Mercein is the daughter of former NFL player Chuck Mercein, but X’s and O’s isn’t a paean to the all-American gridiron spectacle. Rather, the play is primarily about head injuries and the permanent damage done to players in a sport where the prevailing culture requires them to shrug off concussions and keep playing.
Co-commissioned by Berkeley Rep and Baltimore’s Center Stage, the play is based on interviews with players, their families, fans and others. Most of it is in the form of direct address in the interviewees’ own words. Names have been changed, and some characters are amalgams of more than one real person.
The cast of six shifts seamlessly from role to role throughout artistic director Tony Taccone’s fast-paced staging, and by the end of the play’s 80 minutes it becomes increasingly unclear which of several ex-players each actor might be portraying at any given time—but it doesn’t matter much. Resonant-voiced Anthony Holiday and former 49er Dwight Hicks play NFL veterans with sobering stories about how often they were knocked out. Both convey the overwhelming sense that a regard for personal safety is inconsistent with achieving excellence at football.
Football buffs who know Hicks only from his Niners days in the 1980s may be surprised to see him onstage. Since his retirement he’s carved out an acting career, appearing in movies (The Rock, Armageddon) and television (Castle, How I Met Your Mother), and he appears to be comfortably in his element among the ensemble cast.
Bill Geisslinger embodies a few older players who speak authoritatively about how much the game has changed—commenting on the types of helmets used at different points, or how the players have gotten bigger and bigger. “Dance is a contact sport,” one veteran quotes a former coach as saying. “Football is a collision sport.”
Eddie Ray Jackson, who recently played Muhammad Ali in Fetch Clay, Make Man at Marin Theatre Company, here shifts between an aspiring athlete bursting with energy, a loving but haunted son of a damaged player and a concerned ex-fan trying to convince his friends to boycott football. Co-creator Jenny Mercein voices enthusiastic fans and a long-suffering wife.
Particularly compelling is the doctor played by Marilee Talkington. She describes the ins and outs of brain injury, explaining that concussions are far more common than we think and that their effects can be invisible for a troublingly long time. When combined with stories from players’ families of personality change because of undiagnosed dementia, along with footballers’ own testimony about playing through injury and about their colleagues who committed suicide, the evidence gets pretty damning.
Interspersed with these first-person narratives is a march through American football history, sometimes with the actors literally marching as they talk about the development of the sport from its earliest days to the sacred cash cow it is now. (One interesting footnote: the Washington Redskins were the last holdout against integration in the NFL, steadfastly refusing to allow any black players until the government threatened to revoke the team’s stadium lease in 1961.) Alexander V. Nichols’ video design—full of newsreel footage and salient vintage headlines—contrasts sunny news about the sport’s development with information about the NFL quashing talk of dangers and damage. Some of the grimmest facts about football injuries and their aftermath are rattled off by the ensemble while dancing and singing “The Super Bowl Shuffle,” an upbeat single released by Chicago Bears players in 1985.
The play is perfectly comprehensible to non-fans who wouldn’t know a guard from a goal post. What football agnostics will not gain here, however, is a sense of the sport’s appeal. We hear a lot of people talking about how much they love football, certainly, and we witness their extreme reactions of agony, rage and jubilation as they watch the game. But if you’re looking for a convincing argument for the value of this great American institution beyond tradition, inertia and money, that’s something it’s helpful to bring with you going in.
X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story) plays through March 1, 2015 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley. For tickets and information, visit berkeleyrep.org.
All photos courtesy of kevinberne.com.