‘X’s and O’s’ tackles Americans’ passion for football 

click to enlarge From left, Marilee Talkington, Anthony Holiday, Eddie Ray Jackson, Dwight Hicks, Bill Geisslinger and Jenny Mercein appear in “X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story),” a Berkeley Repertory Theatre world premiere. - COURTESY KEVINBERNE.COM
  • COURTESY KEVINBERNE.COM
  • From left, Marilee Talkington, Anthony Holiday, Eddie Ray Jackson, Dwight Hicks, Bill Geisslinger and Jenny Mercein appear in “X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story),” a Berkeley Repertory Theatre world premiere.
We know that football has a dark side: Players often end up with serious brain conditions due to head injuries.

The world premiere of a new docudrama by co-writers KJ Sanchez and Jenny Mercein, “X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story)” — commissioned and developed by Berkeley Repertory Theatre — posits that, despite reforms to the rules of the game mandated by the NFL, the future of football is uncertain.

The play, which recently won the prestigious Rella Lossy Playwright Award, also points out that no organization exists to protect today’s vulnerable young players-to-be.

The writers interviewed scores of former players, their families, coaches, fans and medical professionals to craft the piece, which consists of 90 percent verbatim text, some of it a composite. (Some football professionals refused to be interviewed.)

Mercein is particularly qualified to address the topic, being the daughter of NFL player Chuck Mercein. She is also in the six-member cast.

Under Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone, the 80-minute play is eminently theatrical. The actors, including former 49er Dwight Hicks (who’s now in show business), take on various roles, mostly addressing the audience.

Characters comprise specific players, a team physician, three fans (Mercein, Jackson and Anthony Holiday) at a bar arguing about the game’s social implications, an innocent and ambitious high school player (the excellent Eddie Ray Jackson) and more. The ensemble (including an impressive Bill Geisslinger) also functions as an elegantly choreographed chorus.

Clear projections of archival video (Alexander V. Nichols, lighting and video design) help present a brief history of football and illustrate the horrifying ways in which the game can affect the players’ future — not just their health and their some-times abysmal post-career financial situation (while the NFL currently generates about $10 billion annually), but indeed their lifespan.

In one particularly powerful scene, a doctor (the wonderful Marilee Talkington), aided by medical slides, explains that in today’s game, with today’s helmet design, players can (and do) suffer not only concussive but also sub-concussive injuries that alter the brain permanently and disastrously, but have no immediate outward symptoms.

In another, three family members of players reveal the trauma of those final years of retirement — trauma for the players and their loved ones.

Football may be a beautiful game, as some of the characters observe, but this non-sports-fan is unconvinced. The takeaway from “X’s and O’s” is sure to differ from viewer to viewer — fans will care and others, not so much.

REVIEW

X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story)

Where: Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley

When: Tuesdays-Sundays, closes March 1

Tickets: $29 to $79

Contact: (510) 647-2949, berkeleyrep.org

About The Author

Jean Schiffman

Jean Schiffman

Bio:
Jean Schiffman is a freelance arts writer specializing in theatre. Some of her short stories and personal essays have been published in newspapers and small literary magazines. She is an occasional book copy editor and also has a background in stage acting. Her book “The Working Actor’s Toolkit” was published... more
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