(l to r) Anthony Holiday (Addicott) and Eddie Ray Jackson (Anthony) perform in the world premiere of X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story), a hard-hitting docudrama at Berkeley Rep that examines our country’s passion for a game that is life-giving yet lethal. Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com
Anthony Holiday (Addicott) and Eddie Ray Jackson (Anthony) in the world premiere of X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story), a docudrama at Berkeley Rep that examines our country’s passion for a game that is life-giving yet lethal. Photo: kevinberne.com

It’s hard to ignore football, even if one tries. Adored by millions of devoted fans, it’s a huge part of American culture, not to mention a multibillion dollar industry. The versatile, vital 85-minute “docudrama” Xs and Os explores diverse aspects of the game from teamwork to trauma, from fandom to fear, from consciousness to concussion.

Playwright KJ Sanchez (a self-described football fan) with actor Jenny Mercein (whose father, Chuck, played in Super Bowls) interviewed assorted groups connected with the game, including fans, current and former players and their families, as well as doctors and coaches. The real names of a few people are used while many have been changed. The interviewees’ comments are repeated verbatim in the play, artfully arranged in short scenes that alternate among the various constituencies.

Marilee Talkington, Anthony Holiday, Eddie Ray Jackson, Dwight Hicks, Bill Geisslinger, and Jenny Mercein (l to r) in X’s and O’s. Photo: kevinberne.com

For example, three avid fans, ably acted by Eddie Ray Jackson, Jenny Mercein and Anthony Holiday, sit in a sports bar drinking beer as they complain about ticket prices and debate their passion for the game versus the physical damage it inflicts on the players. The fans conclude that although the football stars may be modern gladiators, the team members are not slaves. And they continue to watch the games — albeit one ashamed fan keeps a bag over his head.

I’m not a football fan, or a devotee of any other sport, for that matter. Occasionally, I’ve found myself wishing that I could join in the excitement and thrill that millions experience by rooting for a team. For fans, the team is an extension of their family, a vital part of their lives. It must be nice. Unless the game kills.

A team physician and medical expert, well-played by Marilee Talkington, describes chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the debilitating and deadly progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in players who have suffered repetitive concussions and other brain trauma. This terrible condition has been well covered in the media in the last several years, but for some audiences, I guess, it may bear retelling. But her lengthy soliloquy seemed more didactic than dramatic, as though the audience was being lectured in a high school gym.

The most theatrical and moving portions of Xs and Os were the recitations by families of deceased players, including those who committed suicide as a result of CTE. Yet, by his mere presence, not to mention his acting skills, actor Dwight Hicks, a former San Francisco 49ers with two Super Bowl Championships, brought forth the argument that players can lead valuable and interesting lives after their athletic careers end.

The playwrights developed this world premiere theatrical event in The Ground Floor, Berkeley Rep’s Center for the Creation and Development of New Work and the Center Stage in Baltimore. With a first-class cast, and Michael Leibert Artistic Director Tony Taccone’s intelligent direction, Xs and Os shines when it veers from instructing its audience and concentrates on the personal stories of players and their families.

Xs and Os (A Football Love Story) is playing at Berkeley Rep through March 1, 2015. Check the theater’s website for tickets, extended performance dates and information.

Berkeleyside publishes many articles every day. To see all our stories in chronological order, and read ones you may have missed, check out All the News.

Emily S. Mendel

Freelancer Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although now a 37-year East Bay resident), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...