When my father saw that I had inherited not only the family dance gene, but also its journalistic one, he urged me to write an exposé on the evils of football. Did he not see that I was more interested in perfecting my arabesque and deconstructing the dynamic of Martha Graham’s contract/release imperative than taking down a bunch of downs? I saw neither valor nor value in “exposing” a game so patently violent that it leaves a trail of blood wherever it goes, the shadow-side confirmation of Marshall McLuhan’s then- trendy proposition that the medium is the message. The blood spoke for itself: what more needed to be said?
As years went by, I noticed that otherwise humane men and women of my acquaintance, such as my uncle, husband, mother-in-law, and “hundred per center” devotees of political activism, would drop whatever task was at hand or obligation, no matter how random or serious, to watch a football game. Postpone this key meeting, re-think those funeral arrangements—for God’s sake, it’s Super Bowl Sunday! They gave no such reverent consideration to, say, a once-in-a-lifetime Gelsey Kirkland/Mikhail Baryshnikov PBS ballet program. As the rules of the game eluded me, instead of watching it, I would watch them watch it, to discern what occult (or obvious) misanthropic skein of neurons inside otherwise familiar-looking heads responded so viscerally to this barbaric game. It was as if the sport ignited properties of two opposite electromagnetic poles, one in the TV screen and the other seated in their eyeballs.
With the Super Bowl on this Sunday’s national agenda, I was imagining myself as the perfect candidate for football aversion behavior modification therapy. Who could have predicted that the Berkeley Rep opening night production of “X’s and O’s” would richly reward and thoroughly vindicate a lifetime of football-induced revulsion?
There is college football, the gritty prelude to pro football, and appropriately, the pre-play warm-up for “X’s and O’s” opening night was a medley of football songs, rendered by a sizable fraction of the University of California Berkeley Marching Band in the balky amateurish way that calls up all of one’s worst associations with the game—cold damp weather, loud drunken jocks pushing and shoving, indigestible stadium food—an extended athletic primal scream of sorts—or maybe, screech.
The play itself is a staged docudrama, where the 6–member cast includes one actor, Dwight Hicks (George Coleman, Ramon and Chorus member), who is a retired Pro player. Hicks had a career as a defensive back with the University of Michigan before joining the San Francisco 49ers, with four consecutive Pro Bowl and two Super Bowl Championships to his credit. Jenny Mercein, who plays the roles of Kelli, Martha, Roberta and Chorus member, is the play’s co-creator with KJ Sanchez. She is a Yale graduate and veteran of local area Shakespeare festivals, whose father played pro ball.
If you arrive expecting a staged football version of the films “Rocky,” or “Raging Bull,” you will be disappointed. A shortsighted artistic team could have churned out a 1960s-style teach-in, appointed with sound-byte factoids about the rates of Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease, personality changes, diminishment of faculties, incidence of domestic violence, suicides, and examples of loss of cognitive and affective functions among players. Digitized charts worked into interactive game board motifs do show how fragile the brain is, and the glaring defects in protective gear such as helmets, while comparing the impact of tackles to that of motor-driven factory machinery.
It turns out that the term “egg-head” is not a reach. When stacked against potential harm from running tackles, the brain is not unlike a large-scale yolk floating in clear gel, shielded from harm by a relatively thin calciferous shell, otherwise known as the cranium.
The reason the production doesn’t shill for the classroom is its dramatic choice to embrace the All-American sport in a theatrical bear hug, effectively crushing protective ribs that have been fortified historically by a substantial quotient of celebrity and lucre. As long-term liabilities accrue, exposure of the sport’s malfeasance seeps into the news, and in this small theater on a relatively obscure, quiet street in the eponymous radical college town of Berkeley, we get to see the one important affective element that football doesn’t deprive us of: its inherent tragedy.
Yet the show is by no means a “radical” critique, more powerful for its not having gone for the screed. All that is necessary to win audience buy-in for the dispassionate recitation of facts, figures and dreadful outcomes, are the results themselves. Acting students are trained to “not play the result.” Here, the result plays itself.
The actors’ job is easier for this, though it helps that they expend energy recreating the football ambience, ganging together for opening and closing team tableaux, engaging in fast-paced runs into and out of the audience, tackles, tumbles, athletic poses, and stances that peg the message to the medium. Some deliver lines rapidly, others more reflectively, as they relate injury stories, associated deaths via suicides of fellow players, or in the case of Caroline (Marilee Talkington), the loss her husband to descent into personality deterioration and violent behavior.
Hicks, the linchpin of the cast, after an uncomfortable pause, stumbles through forgotten lines once or twice during this opening night performance. Does he himself suffer from memory impairment? Talkington, as Team Physician, offers a discourse on the neural axon glue that, owing to repeated contusions, over time breaks off and floats in the brain, causing Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). We’d recognize it more readily in the colloquial adjective “punch drunk,” transduced socially in domestic violence quarters as Battered Wife Syndrome.
More and more players are donating their brains to science so that doctors can discover additional morbid facts about what seems wholly apparent. If football were reconceived as a gentler sport, all that research time and money could be shifted over to diseases science claims to know next to nothing about, such as ALS, DPAM, and Ebola, not to mention that there would be fewer suicides, life-altering injuries and victims of domestic violence.
Grim as the material in “X’s and O’s” reads, there is something strangely satisfying about being in the theater while the cast rips the gauze off the multiple festering wounds that amount to the legacy of this sport. Fine acting, a tight, conscientious script, and athletic staging of “X’s and O’s,” guarantees far more inspiring fare for a Sunday afternoon than does the vulgarized culture of the Super Bowl.