Testing the theory that anything critically examined from multiple perspectives will spark conflict, Centerstage’s latest production, X’s and O’s, theatrically highlights America’s love affair with football, examining our country’s favorite pastime while revealing the often traumatic impact the sport has on many of its players and families.
Stirred by the ongoing revelations about football-related brain trauma, playwright KJ Sanchez and co-creator/collaborator, actress Jenny Mercein (daughter of former pro player Chuck Mercein who is still remembered as the hero of the famed “Ice Bowl” of 1967), effectively entwines an evolutionary history of the game, medical testimony, fan discussion and personal narratives from real-life players, retired players, the relatives and survivors of players, coaches and medical experts, producing a keen, high-energy docudrama.
“I’m a lifelong footfall fan, and I wanted to explore what’s going on in American football today,” Sanchez said. “But I wanted to look at it through the lens of the players, families of the players, and the fans to fully examine our cultural values around the game. What we have crafted is a story that presents both the beauty and brutality of the game and how it ties so profoundly into our identity as Americans. We hope the audience embraces the story whether they are ardent football fans or curious theatergoers.”
Dexterously helmed by Director Tony Taccone, the provocative play briskly unfolds on a round stage that resembles a sports-talk TV set, with manifold small and large screens for game telecast snippets and historic projections. The staging – mostly prominent surfaces and screens, along with two banks of stadium-style lights – provides a bold, versatile backdrop against which a variety of scenes play. Strategically saturated with historical images and game footage that provides context, the projection screens intermittently illustrate just how intensely some players can collide.
Scenic Designer Todd Rosenthal and Lighting and Projection Designer Alexander V. Nichols provide just enough flash with the stadium lights and the near-constant video projections to balance with persuasive performances from the energetic cast of six, which includes former 49er safety Dwight Hicks, who helped that team to two Super Bowl victories in 1982 and 1985.
The talented ensemble, comprised of Jenny Mercein, Dwight Hicks, Bill Geisslinger, Anthony Holiday, Eddie Ray Jackson, and Marilee Talkington, each play several roles, and in a zesty 83 minutes they take us from the field, to the locker room, to the hospital, to the sports bar and to the homes of real players in the aftermaths of their sports careers.
Hicks, Geisslinger, and Holiday take on the roles of former players, most coping with various forms of injury; and all but one – Geisslinger’s notably confrontational, now one-legged and aptly named Tough Guy – distressed about what’s been revealed about concussions and CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy).
In the most dramatically poignant scene, Mercein — a robust presence in a multitude of roles — and Talkington portray two very distinctive widows of former players, their tender recollections of the early years of their marriages gradually giving way to the profound pain of their spouses’ rapid declines, increasing mental instability and untimely deaths. Their monologues are heartwarmingly interwoven with another by Jackson as BJ, a son remembering his once-happy-go-lucky late father endure the same process.
Insightful and intelligent, X’s and O’s is a thought-provoking, culturally relevant theater piece that is informative and entertaining enough to enchant even non-football fans. Whether a fervent fan or a casual observer who watches the Super Bowl just for the half-time show and commercials, this production packs pathos, humor and humanity to engage, enrich, and delight. Touchdown!
Running Time: Approximately 80 minutes, with no intermission.