The worlds of drama and sports collide in X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story), a new play at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Playwright KJ Sanchez is a lifelong football fan, and her collaborator Jenny Mercein is the daughter of former NFL player Chuck Mercein, but X’s and O’s isn't a paean to the all-American gridiron spectacle. Rather, the play is primarily about head injuries and the permanent damage done to players in a sport where the prevailing culture requires them to shrug off concussions and keep playing.
Co-commissioned by Berkeley Rep and Baltimore’s Center Stage, the play is based on interviews with players, their families, fans and others. Most of it is in the form of direct address in the interviewees’ own words. Names have been changed, and some characters are amalgams of more than one real person.
The cast of six shifts seamlessly from role to role throughout artistic director Tony Taccone’s fast-paced staging, and by the end of the play’s 80 minutes it becomes increasingly unclear which of several ex-players each actor might be portraying at any given time—but it doesn't matter much. Resonant-voiced Anthony Holiday and former 49er Dwight Hicks play NFL veterans with sobering stories about how often they were knocked out. Both convey the overwhelming sense that a regard for personal safety is inconsistent with achieving excellence at football.
Football buffs who know Hicks only from his Niners days in the 1980s may be surprised to see him onstage. Since his retirement he's carved out an acting career, appearing in movies (The Rock, Armageddon) and television (Castle, How I Met Your Mother), and he appears to be comfortably in his element among the ensemble cast.
Bill Geisslinger embodies a few older players who speak authoritatively about how much the game has changed—commenting on the types of helmets used at different points, or how the players have gotten bigger and bigger. “Dance is a contact sport,” one veteran quotes a former coach as saying. “Football is a collision sport.”
Eddie Ray Jackson, who recently played Muhammad Ali in Fetch Clay, Make Man at Marin Theatre Company, here shifts between an aspiring athlete bursting with energy, a loving but haunted son of a damaged player and a concerned ex-fan trying to convince his friends to boycott football. Co-creator Jenny Mercein voices enthusiastic fans and a long-suffering wife.