Full disclosure: I am a theater-loving football fan. It is in my blood. I was almost born at a Baltimore Colts game. I wasn’t supposed to be born until January so my Mom toddled off to a Colts game in early December as usual. Halfway through the game, she felt the beginning of labor pains and told my Dad they had to go. He said, “Are you sure? The Colts are winning.”
My Dad was taking my Mom up the steps at Memorial Stadium when Bobby Kennedy noticed my mother’s condition (the Kennedy box was next to our section) and insisted he escort her in the VIP elevator down to the parking level. “I have a lot of experience with this, you know,” he reassured my Mom.
So a play about football is about as good as it gets for me. KJ Sanchez and Jenny Mercein (both women playwrights and Mercein is the daughter of a former NFL pro) examine the guts and gory of football in X’s and O’s, a co-commission by Center Stage and Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where it premiered earlier this year.
Baltimore is a football town and at first glance X’s and O’s seems the kind of thing you could take Ravens fans to as an accessible introduction to live theater. It begins dynamically with the visual wow of Todd Rosenthal’s set—with flashy stadium lighting and banks of TV screens that resemble smaller versions of the Jumbotron and an overall feel of a jazzed-up ESPN show.
The excellent ensemble cast (Bill Geisslinger, Dwight Hicks, Anthony Holiday, Eddie Ray Jackson, Jenny Mercein, Marilee Talkington) cheers for an unseen team in slow motion as the “Monday Night Football” theme blares. The audience is pumped for 90 minutes of action and commentary about the beloved sport.
X’s and O’s (the title refers to football play diagrams) uses extensive interviews with pro players, their families, fans and medical experts to construct a free-flowing narrative about the history of football, the passion of the fans and how the sport’s mingling of violence and athletic grace defines who we are as Americans.
The play also delves into the bleaker aspects of the gridiron: concussions and traumatic brain injuries, battered bodies, and increased risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia among NFL players. There are ethical debates as well, concerning whether children (with their vulnerable, developing brains) should play football and the morality of poor black Americans using football and the NFL as an escape from poverty and limited opportunities.
Important issues all, and X’s and O’s is at its best when the pro characters talk about the dangerous allure of the game—the crazy heroics of getting up and making the play after you’ve been knocked out and seeing stars, the brutal beauty of the perfect hit, the pain you suck up and unleash on your opponents.
X’S AND O’S
November 13 – December 20, 2015
700 North Calvert Street
Baltimore, MD 21202
1 hour, 30 minutes, no intermission
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Tickets: $10 – $59
Details and Tickets
Even though some of the former players can barely walk and seem prematurely aged, you get the feeling they wouldn’t have traded their playing years for anything. Watching Dwight Hicks (former San Francisco 49er) twirl a football in his hands as if it’s the most natural thing in the world and move with the bulked poise of an NFL player is particularly affecting.
The play gets awfully preachy and repetitious when dealing with the brain injury piece and the violence. The transcripts of the fallout from concussion interviews seem more like a PSA than moments snatched from real life. It becomes so heavy-handed you start feeling like a jerk for loving football and exposing young family members to its dangers and exploitative aspects when they play the game at school.
By the umpteenth sad interview you feel trapped in a game clip playing in an endless loop. Football is a blood sport? Getting pounded by a 300 lb. behemoth is not conducive to good health? No, shut the front door!
The play also is tailored to Baltimore and Ravens fans and while some of it is entertaining, most of it seems inauthentic and awkwardly pasted into the narrative.
You would have to be pretty disconnected from current events not to know about the controversy about concussions in professional football and the wisdom of letting children play the sport. X’s and O’s could stand less transcript and more substance—probing into why we love the brutal game despite its damage to the players and why men risk their lives to play it.
X’s and O’s by KJ Sanchez with Jenny Mercein . Directed by Tony Taccone . Featuring: Bill Geisslinger, Dwight Hicks, Anthony Holiday, Eddie Ray Jackson, Jenny Mercein, Marilee Talkington. Scenic Designer: Todd Rosenthal. Costumer Designer: Meg Neville. Lighting and Video Designer: Alexander V. Nichols. Sound Designer: Jake Rodriguez. Movement Director: John Sipes. Production Dramaturg: Gavin Witt. Stage Manager: Kimberly Mark Webb. Produced by Center Stage . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.