The latest production at Berkeley Rep, the second commission this season to come out of their new incubator program The Ground Floor, is subtitled "A football love story." But the play, X's and O's, isn't so much a love story as it is an intelligent look at America's more violent pastime, the growing scourge of traumatic brain injuries in the sport, and an oral history of our country's love affair with both the game and its gladiatorial style.
The playwright, KJ Sanchez, is female, as is her collaborator, actress Jenny Mercein, and this is unexpected given the male domination of the NFL, and the fact that women weren't even welcome to cover the sport on TV until very recently. But football didn't become as widely popular as it is in the U.S. by solely appealing to men sure the majority of fans are still men, but there are tons of women out there, like Sanchez, who have grown up watching and loving the game, and who arguably serve to add a certain maternal good sense to the national conversation about the tragic effects that traumatic brain injuries can have on its players.
Weaving together football history, medical testimony, fan discussion, and personal narratives from real-life retired players and their families, X's and O's is yet another example of Berkeley Rep's valiant efforts to produce new work of intelligence and insight.
The performances are by a talented ensemble: Mercein, Bill Geisslinger, Dwight Hicks, Anthony Holiday, Eddie Ray Jackson, and Marilee Talkington. All of them play multiple roles, and in a brisk 80 minutes they take us from field, to locker room, to hospital, to sports bar, to the homes of real players in the aftermaths of their sports careers. We learn that the NFL and the medical establishment didn't even start to understand the long-term effects of multiple concussive brain injuries, sometimes from seemingly innocuous blows to helmeted heads, until a decade ago. Now, in the wake of suicides by former players and Congressional testimony from others with permanent disabilities, more and more fans including Sanchez, clearly are questioning their love for football and how the NFL, not to mention colleges, can move forward responsibly, without risking players' future well-beings.
Most tragic, and poignant, in Sanchez's script, is a section told simultaneously from the voices of three family members of three deceased players players who likely died for brain-injury-related reasons at untimely ages. It basically makes you never want to watch another tackle again, even though Sanchez is careful to discuss how relatively safe playing in the NFL is now compared to ten years ago but high school and college ball? Not so safe.
With some efficient and expert direction from Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone, X's and O's arrives as a fully formed and polished piece of theater that's informative and entertaining enough to please even non-fans. But for lovers of football, or for parents of young players, it will spur some serious thought, and should be mandatory viewing.
X's and O's plays through March 1 at Berkeley Rep. Get tickets here, and remember to request the discount if you are age 30 or under.