By SPENCER ABROHMS For The News-Letter
Center Stage’s production of X’s and O’s is an emotional, thought-provoking look at America’s most popular game that will satisfy theater aficionados and sports fanatics alike.
Deemed “A Football Love Story,” X’s and O’s is a fitting tribute to the complicated relationship the American public has with football, as it tries to reconcile passion for the game with the potentially distressing effects it has on its players and community.
X’s and O’s was created by playwright K.J. Sanchez and actress Jenny Mercein, and it was directed by Tony Taccone. Established veterans of the entertainment industry, they were motivated to write this play after discovering their shared love of football. Mercein’s father, Chuck Mercein, played for several NFL teams, including the Green Bay Packers and the New York Giants, while she was growing up. While Sanchez did not have a family background in football, her passion for the sport and her theatrical experience made her a perfect collaborative match for the project.
To create an authentic script, the duo conducted interviews with those connected to the football industry including NFL veterans, players’ wives and dedicated fans. About 90 percent of the dialogue was taken from the transcriptions of these interviews, providing legitimacy to every contention and sentiment established throughout the play.
The characters, whose stories are based on these telling interviews, truly care about football and wish to see its controversial problems alleviated. X’s and O’s stars several prominent stage and film actors as well as retired NFL player Dwight Hicks. Hicks played for the San Francisco 49ers from 1979 to 1985, participating in four Pro Bowls and two Super Bowls. Each cast member plays multiple roles, which range from Rocky to a physician to a Giants fan.
The play has no traditional plot and instead organically transitions between various scenes that pay homage to football and its distinctly American history while debating its current merits and questionable future. As the scenes transition from one to the other, the set design constantly changes with them.
The play discusses recent controversies surrounding football and the NFL. While X’s and O’s “tackles” issues like player compensations, football’s effect on urban communities, and its role in child development, one of its main focuses is on the issue of concussions and their effect on players.
Concussions have become an issue of national discussion, especially with all the new information available on the severe medical effect that they can have on players who suffer from them during games.
Other mediums have also recently produced stories on concussion related injuries on the football field. This includes an upcoming film titled Concussion staring Will Smith based on a 2009 GQ article on the topic.
There is also a documentary titled League of Denial that focuses on some of the more controversial aspects of the NFL’s response to CTE and concussions.
Football-related injuries have been linked to early onset Alzheimer’s and chronic traumatic cephalopathy as well as mental health issues like addiction, depression and suicide.
In a particularly emotional scene, the actors recount stories from the interviews with the children and spouses of retired NFL players whose mental health had deteriorated to the point of death.
These anecdotes are heartbreaking and reveal to audiences that the theatrics we see on the field can have detrimental effects on those who play the game and their loved ones.
Recurring scenes throughout the show include the familiar occurrence of three friends at a bar watching a game and discussing the future of football, a physician discussing the health concerns of football and anecdotes about the history of football.
One concern discussed in the play that is relevant to Baltimore is football’s impact on urban communities and the ability of sports franchises to take advantage of cities. The departure of the Colts from Baltimore in the 1980s has had a lasting impact on many residents.
Another issue addressed is the influence the sport can have on the development of children and underprivileged minorities. Football can be beneficial for some children because it provides a sense of discipline and camaraderie. It can also provide a source of role models for children who grow up without them.
However, as many wealthier people begin to prevent their children from playing football because of the danger it poses, there may come a time when the only people still playing football are those who seek to escape poverty.
Ultimately X’s and O’s encapsulates the drama and theatrics of football in a polished and well-acted show. As audiences gain insight into the world of the players, their doctors and their families, they will undoubtedly alter the way they view this game that has become so ingrained in American culture.
X’s and O’s originally premiered at the Berkeley Repertory Theater in California earlier this year from January until March. It is currently at Center Stage in the Mount Vernon neighborhood of Baltimore and will be running until Dec. 20.