A play couldn't be more ripped from the headlines than "X's and O's," an examination of football, the good and bad, opening this week at Center Stage. At the heart of this 90-minute work, written by KJ Sanchez with Jenny Mercein, is the increasingly high-profile topic of injuries, a subject that never seems to be out of the news for long.
This season, deaths of at least eight high school football players have been reported in this country, all attributed to injuries during games. Many an NFL game includes the sight of players being carted off the field after collisions.
Coming soon to movie theaters is "Concussion," starring Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist who sounded the alarm about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease, in football players. That will keep the discussion going, even if the filmmakers toned down some material to avoid antagonizing the NFL, which has been accused by players of hiding the dangers of traumatic brain injury.
Meanwhile, Baltimore-area theater-goers can explore the injury issue, and much more, in "X's and O's."
"When I started writing this, I made a list of rules for myself. The first was it couldn't be an expose," Sanchez says. "It's not about putting the NFL on trial. I wanted to ask: What does this game give us, and what are the personal costs? So many play because they love the game, and it has given them a lot. I wanted to honor that."
Sanchez is founder and CEO of a theater company called American Records, which specializes in documentary projects. In 2010, Center Stage presented "ReEntry," a sobering play she co-wrote based on interviews with Marines returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.
"X's and O's" likewise stems from interviews, conducted during the past few years with people inside the football industry and fans of the game. Those interviews generated dialogue for six actors, each portraying multiple characters.
To this work, Sanchez brought a longtime love of football. Mercein brought that same passion, along with what you might call DNA — her father is Chuck Mercein, the fullback who helped the Green Bay Packers beat the Dallas Cowboys in the frigid 1967 NFL championship game known as the "Ice Bowl."
A few days after the suicide of retired NFL linebacker Junior Seau in 2012 (like Dave Duerson the year before, he shot himself in the chest, apparently to allow postmortem study of his brain), Sanchez and Mercein were at a Cinco de Mayo party in Brooklyn.
"Everybody at that party thought that Junior Seau's death was going to be the pivotal moment when the game changes," Sanchez says. "I was talking with Jenny, who I had worked with before. She said her father was a pro football player, which I hadn't known. It was the first 'aha' moment. I thought we should make a play capturing what's happening in football at this particular moment."
Mercein agreed. Having seen "ReEntry," she felt comfortable with the idea of collaborating with the playwright.
"What impressed me so much about 'ReEntry' was how evenly balanced it was," Mercein says. "I had expected some typical anti-war play. So I thought: 'Wow, you really could do something like this about football.' I was personally so invested in the sport that I wouldn't feel right working on something that was 100 percent negative."
Sanchez next contacted Tony Taccone, artistic director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre and a passionate football fan. Taccone asked her if she knew of another theater company that might make a good co-producer for the football play. She suggested Center Stage — "I loved the way they produced 'ReEntry,'" she says.
After a workshop on "X's and O's" at Center Stage, Berkeley Rep gave the premiere in January in a production directed by Taccone. The play has since been revised, with Baltimore-centric additions, for Center Stage. Taccone is directing this production, too.
The piece reflects his influence. After seeing an initial draft, he suggested an expansion.
"Tony said, 'It's a very small play with a small lens. Go wide.' That's what we did," Sanchez says.
In the end, "X's and O's" encompassed the history of the game, as well as the personal stories revealed through interviews.
Those personal stories, especially from wives and family members of players, can be quite moving.
"One wife told me that her husband had always been the big, strong football player protecting her," Sanchez says. "But after he developed CTE, she was protecting him. She became more like a mother than a spouse."
Digging into the history, the team was surprised to discover other periods when people were talking about how the game was too dangerous.
"In 1937, a handbook for coaches said after one concussion, you should stop playing the game," Sanchez says.
The early years of the 20th century revealed how brutal football was. In 1905, 19 players across the country died of injuries; more than 137 serious injuries were recorded.
"The issue of concussion is not a new one," Taccone says.
It attracted attention at the White House in that deadly year of 1905.
"It was amazing to find out that Teddy Roosevelt and the president of Harvard discussed whether football should be abolished," Mercein says. "Roosevelt wanted to save the game and support the virility of the American male."
The game was saved, but it took time for reforms to take hold. Some would argue that the time for reforms has come again, especially now that more is known about long-term effects of concussion among retired NFL players.
Dwight Hicks, one of the actors in "X's and O's," is especially aware of those dangers. Before turning to acting two decades ago, he enjoyed a pro football career between 1978 and 1986, playing most of those years with the San Francisco 49ers and helping them to two Super Bowl victories.
He pointed to the examples of two players: Dave Dalby, who played in the league from 1972 to 1985, and Fred McNeill, who played for the Minnesota Vikings from 1974 to 1985.
"A good friend of mine, Dave Dalby of the Raiders, was in so much pain," Hicks says. "When he died in a crash [in 2002], people said he killed himself. Fred McNeill just passed away. He had ALS and Alzheimer's."
Hicks, who has had no health scares, sees parents being more cautious about letting their kids play football.
"It used to be the attitude was: Let them play and they will find out if football is for them or not," he says. "Now with head trauma issues, I don't know. I was an all-around athlete. I went from football to basketball to baseball. Now coaches tell kids to pick one."
Since his playing days, Hicks was seen a lot of changes.
"Players in general are bigger and faster now, and they're training more. We had more of an offseason," he says.
Other things about the game are much different today, too.
"It's changed in many ways and on many levels," Hicks says. "There is a higher pay scale for players. Football on TV is out of control. You can turn on four, eight, nine stations and find someone talking about game highlights. It's 24/7. And it has made owners a lot wealthier. There's huge money involved. It's very corporate. But I still like to see a good game. The fan base is still there."
Taccone is part of that base.
"I'm a lifelong sports fan," the director says. "But I've watched my teams become empires, watched the business aspect explode through television and become a combination of hyper-capitalism, celebrity and sports."
With all of that celebrity has come increased off-the-field scrutiny for players. Domestic abuse scandals have proved especially damaging.
"We touch on that in the play," Mercein says. "The Ray Rice case was impossible to ignore."
But the play still reflects Sanchez's goal of not becoming too negative about football. It is meant to celebrate the positive side. Taccone sums it up: "The whole ethos of football and self-sacrifice; giving up your body and being part of a larger cause; the wonderful bonding; the joy it brings to fans and cities."
Taccone made attendance at a recent Ravens home game mandatory for all cast members. One of them had never experienced such an event.
"She said by halftime, she wanted to buy a Ravens jersey," Taccone says. "Being around [70,000] people screaming has a big effect on you. It's very hard not to get caught up in that."
Shortly after that upbeat event, Taccone was reminded why "X's and O's" was written — he happened to watch the Seattle Seahawks-Dallas Cowboys game in which Ricardo Lockette was carried off the field after a collision in which he suffered a concussion and season-ending injury. "That was really hard to see," Taccone says.
But with music and stadium lights on the stage set, the creative team behind "X's and O's" promises plenty of entertainment mingled with the serious talk.
"Football is more popular than it has ever been," Sanchez says. "I wanted to look at the cultural phenomenon of football. I don't know another sport that translates into such great storytelling. Football brings a town together in way that nothing else does."
If you go
"X's and O's," in previews through Thursday, opens Friday and runs through Dec. 20 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets are $10 to $64. Call 410-332-0033, or go to centerstage.org.