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Head Shots: X's and O's at Center Stage

I recall a story where a pastor spoke to his congregation about the 10 commandments. To paraphrase, the pastor said, "About that commandment about not having any false idols--not applicable for today, right? Nobody praying before golden calves today, right?" Then, he held up a football.

It seems football has become almost a religion in the United States, and just like religion, it's been taking its lumps of late (just peruse social media for about 30 seconds). Literally. As the media has reported how more former pro football players --claiming physical and mental damage due to their days on the gridiron-- are filing suit against the NFL, the concern about "America's favorite sport" has risen exponentially.

It's topical. And it's influence can be seen in the world of theatre, as in KJ Sanchez and Jenny Mercein's work, "X's and O's," now at Baltimore's Center Stage.

Though described as "a play," there's no story here, no plot. Instead, this 90-minute production features a series of vignettes with an ensemble cast playing multiple roles working from "a script based on dozens of interviews with pro players," as Center Stage's news release explains.

The cast exude considerable energy as they transport the small Head Theater stage into a sports bar, a doctor's presentation complete with MRIs of normal vs. concussed brains (and a device for testing football helmets), the occasional active football player exercising, running drills while the testosterone-laded, brass-and-drums heavy music-football's theme song-plays.

X's and O's isn't so much entertaining, as it is...interesting. There's a bit of "History Channel" to the production as we learn how President Teddy Roosevelt used his influence to save football more than a 100 years ago after reports of multiple on-field deaths...well, they didn't even use helmets at all, initially. And it watch black-and-white news-reel footage of pioneering helmet inventors, trying out their cranial contraptions by literally running head-first into brick walls.

But if X's and O's sought to move the audience emotionally, to bring home the message of (again to quote the release) "how former players grapple with Alzheimer's, dementia, and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)," in this, the play fails.

As my theater companion of the evening (herself a seasoned caregiver of parents with dementia) noted, "The play talks about the damage football can cause...but we never see it." Football-induced brain damage is explained, argued, dismissed by some, championed as a cause by others...but it is never EXPOSED on the stage. The actors (Bill Geisslinger, Dwight Hicks, Anthony Holiday, Eddie Ray Jackson, Jenny Mercein, Marilee Talkington) take turns either reminiscing about how this damage occurred, the ways it has and hasn't impacted football..., but where is the former player with slurred speech, memory problems, anger issues?

The play TALKS about it-but doesn't SHOW it. And in theater, the message is always much more powerful when the audience can SEE it happening.

X's and O's is a clever mix of mixed-media, proceeds at a high pace, and even features a laugh or two ("Football is the only sport where it pays to be the fat kid! You're big, you can play football!"); it is certainly engaging, whether you have a fan's interest in football or not. But I found it more educational than entertaining, like a very well done college or even high school production where the message is more important than what is actually transpiring on stage.

X's and O's continues its run at Center Stage now through Sunday, Dec. 20th at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert Street in downtown Baltimore. For more information, visit

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From This Author Daniel Collins