Center Stage’s tackles the dangers of football in the intriguing but uneven X’s and O’s By Anna Ditkoff

Sports stories are so often laden in clichés but Center Stage’s X’s and O’s did not tread that ground. There was no ragtag team of underdogs pulling together to defeat the cocky soulless favorites in the final moments of the big game. In fact, if there was an enemy to overcome it was the game of football itself or, more precisely, the damage the game does to its players through repeated brain injuries. The result was a fascinating and unflinching, if occasionally heavy-handed, look at the beloved sport.

Playwrights KJ Sanchez and Jenny Mercein used stories from real people–former players, their family members, and fans–to paint a picture of game. The stories could be hard to hear.

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Listening to former players discuss the injuries they endured, the numbers of blows to the head that they experienced, and the culture of toughness that led to taking pride in playing injured was harrowing. Even more difficult was listening to a doctor, played by Marilee Talkington, expound on the serious long term effects of not just concussions but less obvious injuries called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which can impair judgment and impulse control and increase aggression on its way to dementia.

But the most gut wrenching were the tales from the players’ wives and children, who watched their loved ones go from vital, capable, loving men to strangers dealing with addiction, memory loss, and uncontrollable rage. Sanchez and Mercein kept the play from drowning in the pathos of these stories by interspersing them with lighter moments—fans describing their undying passion for their team or debating the pros and cons of the game at a bar, as well as football history performed by a chorus of actors (at one point to the tune of “The Superbowl Shuffle”).

The six-member cast was strong and played off one another well. Talkington had the unenviable task of explaining all the science as the physician but was able to hold the audience rapt. She was equally affecting as a players wife with a broad accent and a heart-wrenching story of loss.

Co-writer Mercein’s portrayal of another’s players wife with quiet ferocity was one of the most moving of the show. Anthony Holiday was charismatic as a player, a fan, and an academic and was able to make each character completely defined. Eddie Gray Jackson had to tackle the roles of a football fan/critic, a high school player, and a child of a player and was able to bring completely different energies to each role.

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Bill Geisslinger was totally engrossing and believable as a series of older curmudgeonly veterans though the characters could have been more distinct from one another. (Meg Neville’s perhaps overly subtle costuming also made them difficult to differentiate.) The only actor who struggled to connect was former professional football player Dwight Hicks, who was likable but stiff and never seemed at home on the stage.

The set by Todd Rosenthal beautifully called to mind a slick sports talk show with green moving grids, large monitors, and stadium-style lights. Lighting and video designer Alexander V. Nichols flooded every surface with photos and videos that provided valuable context. Director Tony Taccone used every inch of the circular stage and provided quick pacing that kept the audience engaged for the play’s 85 intermission-less minutes.

Taccone, who has been with the play since its inception as a commission for Center Stage and Berkeley Repertory Theater, also made a few missteps. The show began with fans reacting in slow motion to a game. It was funny and brought the audience in, as we recognized ourselves or our loved ones in the looks of elation or grimaces of disgust, however, when used to transition between scenes, the slow motion felt like a silly gag. Twice actors came out dressed as over-the-top fans and tried to interact with the crowd, both times it was such an abysmal fail, it was surprising those characters made it out of previews.

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X’s and O’s did an excellent job making its case that football is dangerous and that its players have not and are not being properly cared for and protected. Where it fumbles is in making that argument feel balanced. The fan perspectives feel hollow stacked against the scientific evidence presented–their feeble excuses, a sort of “All Lives Matter” for the pigskin set. Perhaps this is because the brain injury argument is so much stronger than anything a fan can mumble about teamwork or history or the American spirit but it leaves lovers of the game feeling unrepresented and surprised to learn that Sanchez considers herself a football super-fan and Mercein is the daughter of a professional football player.

On a recent episode of WYPR’s “Maryland Morning,” CenterStage’s artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah said that he co-commissioned X’s and O’s because he felt sports fans were a demographic Center Stage had not reached. It seems unlikely that this play will bring Ravens Nation to the theater but if it does, it will likely leave them moved and informed but even more disheartened about the game they love than by the Ravens’ disastrous season.

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Author Anna Ditkoff has been writing about arts and culture in Baltimore since 1998. She is perhaps best known for creating the Murder Ink column for the Baltimore City Paper. 

X’s and O’s at Center Stage Nov 13–Dec 20
By KJ Sanchez with Jenny Mercein
Directed by Tony Taccone

All Photos by Richard Anderson