A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Sunday, February 8, 2015

X's and O's

The oldest maxim of the theater is: The show must go on.
But not at the February 1 performance of "X's and O's (An American Love Story)," a smart, sad, funny and ultimately very moving play about pro football now playing at Berkeley Rep, when the opening curtain was delayed for several minutes.
Reason: The audience was still in the bar, eyes glued to the final minutes of the Super Bowl on TV. The cast was watching, too, huddled around a tiny television set backstage.
"Three minutes after the game was over, we were onstage," says actress/playwright Jenny Mercein, who created "X's and O's" with her fellow actress/playwright, KJ Sanchez. "The show had wonderful energy that night."
On one level, "X's and O's" is an epic history of football, from the very first game, Princeton vs. Rutgers in 1869, to today's mounting concerns about brain damage.
On another level, it's the very personal story of what it's like to find something (or someone) you really love and then lose it  - or him.
"X's and O's" uses almost verbatim dialog from interviews Sanchez and Mercein conducted with more than 50 former NFL players, including Mercein's own father, running back Chuck Mercein, who played from 1965 to 1971 for the Giants, Packers and Jets. When he heard she was planning this project, he said, "Sounds like a great idea. I want nothing to do with it."
"He was saddened by a Packers reunion he'd attended," she explains. "He was expecting it to be reminiscing about old times, but it turned out to be about people who were sick or suffering or had died."
But he eventually came around, and so did many others.
"Being his daughter definitely opened doors for me," she says. "All I had to say was 'My father played for Vince Lombardi.'"
Lending first-hand expertise to the production is one of the actors – Dwight Hicks, the four-time Pro Bowl safety who played a key role in the 49ers' first two Super Bowl victories.
Unlike many players, who feel lost after their playing days are over, Hicks hit the ground running and built a second career as a character actor on more TV shows than I can count, including "ER," "Castle," "How I Met Your Mother" and "The X-Files."
"A lot of guys I played with defined themselves by what they did," he says. "I never defined myself as a football player. My mother taught me that. I just found another passion."
They both say football and the theater have a lot in common, especially a dedication to your craft - but with one big difference.
"I was taking an acting class where they were teaching us the Alexander Technique, a spinal tension release," says Mercein. "I burst into tears and said, 'My father played for Vince Lombardi! Just tell me what to do, and I'll do it!' But that's not the way it works in the theater."
"There's no winner or loser in the theater, either," Hicks added.
So what does Mercein's dad think of the play?
"He hasn't seen it yet! He just had double knee replacement surgery, so he won't see it until the final week. But my mom saw it, and she loved it."
I saw it last Sunday, and I loved it, too.


                                (Photo by Sibila Savage)

Hey, jazz girls!
Tired of being one of the only girls in your band?
Tired of the boys hogging all the solos?
Thinking about joining a jazz group, but feeling shy?
Have I got an event for you! And it's free!
It's the fourth annual JazzGirls Day at Berkeley High, featuring a Who's Who of local female jazz musicians, including trumpeter Ellen Seeling, director of the Montclair Women's Big Band; saxophonist/drummer Jean Fineberg, the band's co-director; and trombonist Sara Cline, director of Berkeley High's award-winning student jazz program.
"We'll play some tunes, have a jam session, break up into groups by instrument and talk about our experiences as women and girls in the jazz world," says Cline. "Bring all your friends, even if they don’t play jazz yet!"
JazzGirls Day will be held on Saturday, March 7. (They usually hold it on March 8, International Women's Day, but that falls on a Sunday this year.) Space is limited, so I advise registering as soon as possible at bhsjazz.org/jazzgirls-day/
This event has become a bigger hit every year since it was founded, inspiring similar events - also free - in Seattle, New York and San Francisco.
The San Francisco event will be held on Saturday, March 28, at SFJAZZ Center's Joe Henderson Lab, 201 Franklin Street (at Fell). Once again, space is limited, so register ASAP at sfjazz.org/jazzgirlsday/
But wait! There's more! If one day sounds like fun, how about a whole week?
The same people behind JazzGirls Day are also offering a weeklong jazz and blues camp for women from March 23-27 at the JazzSchool in Berkeley, a short walk from both Berkeley High and the downtown Berkeley BART station.
The sessions include a blues & soul band, Latin ensemble, roots music choir, percussion, theory and improvisation, and two new additions this year: a Beatles choir and a New Orleans ensemble, as well as individual one-on-one consultations.
But for my money, the highlight of each day is the lunchtime jam session in the JazzSchool courtyard, where students and teachers play together.
Finally, on Friday, the campers will perform a free public concert in which they invariably amaze themselves by how far they've come so quickly.
"I learned more in one week than I did in two years!" an attendee at last year's camp told me.
This one will cost money - $475, although some financial aid is available – and a week out of your life, so I'm letting you know early so you can plan your vacation time accordingly.
For more information visit cjc.edu/womenscamp or call 510-758-2200. To register, visit cjc.edu/womens reg or call 510-845-5573.
There will also be a jazz & blues camp for girls this summer, but there isn't enough space to tell you about it now. I'll let you know more as the time approaches.
And it would take a dozen columns to express my admiration for Seeling, Fineberg, Cline and all their friends. Like too much of our society, jazz has been a man's world that's awfully hard for women to crack.
But these women – great musicians all - are empowering other women and girls to play the music that I consider America's greatest cultural contribution to the world.