Center Stage’s “X’s and O’s” tackles the controversies of football

By: Mia White, Staff Writer

To many Americans, football season is a yearly ritual filled with a mixture of elation and excitement. To others, it is a mystifying, or even brutal, obsession. Center Stage’s “X’s and O’s explores the game through combination of fiction and interviews, creating an experience that will appeal to an audience that extends beyond football fanatics to the casual, or even sports disinterested, theater-goer.

The idea for the play was born just a few days after former football player Junior Seau committed suicide in 2012. Playwright KJ Sanchez and co-creator Jenny Mercein (daughter of an NFL running back) met at a party and realized they both loved football. Hoping to examine the controversies of the sport on stage, they soon received a co-commission from Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Center Stage to make their idea come to life.

This play is unusual, in that draws from interviews and also presents fictional narratives.  The play presents commentary through monologues or conversations that characters have with one another. The beauty of the play lies in its variety. It brings stories together in a way that is incredibly thought-provoking. Rather than arguing for or against football, “X’s and O’s” leaves the viewer feeling more knowledgeable, but no less sure of what the future of the game should be. The script flows seamlessly from one idea to the next, and there is a great balance of humor, tragedy and statistics.

The play explores many ideas surrounding the game, including it’s history and the passion that it draws from its fans. The central controversy is that of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). A condition caused by repetitive impacts of the brain, CTE presents symptoms similar to those of dementia, including erratic behavior and memory loss. The play also touches on race and socio-economic background, the connection of football to the American dream, and football as a means of escape from a life of poverty.

The acting in the play was on point throughout. Since the play included many different perspectives, there were far more characters than the six actors in the show. There were voices of retired players, doctors who study donated brains from deceased players, and diehard fans. It was impressive how the actors often changed roles in an instant, simply by pulling a jersey over their head, carrying themselves in a distinct way, or changing their patterns of speech. Occasionally it felt a little disorienting to have so many characters, but the actors did an excellent job of creating individuality.

One particularly powerful scene occurs at the end of the play, when three family members of CTE affected players tell their stories. Like the rest of the play, this scene is, powerful by cumulative effect. The distinct stories would be heartbreaking on their own, but the impeccable acting of Eddie Ray Jackson, Miralee Talkington, and Jenny Mercein, merges with the script to reveal the overlap between the stories, and lifts them into the sphere of tragedy.

Ultimately, the play was enjoyable. It touches on thought provoking ideas of football which are a key part of American culture. There is no doubt that any viewer would appreciate the excellent acting and informative script, and will go home with a richer understanding of the game.

Pictured (left to right): Anthony Holidays, Eddie Ray Jackson. Photo credit: Richard Anderson

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