The World Premiere production of playwright Patrick Link's Headstrong, directed by William Carden, tackles the subject of football-related brain damage. It runs through tonight, May 13, at the Ensemble Studio Theatre at 549 West 52nd Street.
The Ensemble Studio Theatre/Alfred P. Sloan Project for New Plays on Science and Technology tackles Post-Concussion Syndrome in the world premiere of Headstrong. The play is directed by Ensemble Studio Theatre Artistic Director William Carden.
Headstrong is the story of a long-retired NFL linebacker who played with the greats and tackled them to the ground. When his son-in-law, a Pro Bowler himself, dies under strange circumstances, he and his widowed daughter struggle with their own culpability, and whether the brain trauma he suffered in life was the price of football greatness.
Headstrong features Ron Canada, Tim Cain, Alexander Gemignani and Nedra McClyde. Sets are by Jason Simms, lighting by Chris Dallos, sound by Jannie Bullard, video by David Tennent and costumes by SuzAnne Chesney.
Mr. Link's play is inspired by the ongoing struggles of professional athletes with head-related injuries, including, among others, Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster, who suffered from amnesia, dementia and depression before his death at the age of 50; and Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Andre Waters, who sustained numerous concussions as a player before committing suicide at age 44.
"If you’re an NFL player," Mr. Link says, "what do you do when the one thing you’re qualified to dothat can generate income for your family, the thing you’ve loved your whole life, that you feel you are designed to domight destroy your brain?"
"Science tells us these men put their lives at risk when they go out on that field," says Mr. Carden. "But there is a deep need in our culture for heroes, and these men answer that need. So this play is asking, 'do we lose our heroes if we heed our science?' It's a conflict."
The research linking the brain damage suffered by Webster and Waters, and the injuries sustained during their playing days has been led by the former pro wrestler Chris Nowinski (a.k.a. Chris Harvard www.chrisharvard.net), and neuropathologist Bennet Omalu (www.braininjuryresearchinstitute.org/about-us).
Both have been involved in the study of post-concussion syndrome, especially through the study of retired or deceased pro football players that continues to generate front page headlines around the country. Two characters in Headstrong are loosely based on Nowinski and Omalu.
Playwright Patrick Link has been a football fan his whole life. He read Mr. Nowinski's book Head Games: Football's Concussion Crisis and says it speaks to the conflict at the center of the sport he loves.
"In the interest of player safety, football has to change drastically, and that's a change that no true fan of the sport wants to see," Mr. Link says. "When science tells us that our traditions, our passions are flawed, how do we change? What consequence is severe enough to bring about change? If brain damage isn't enough…what is?"
Patrick Link, 27, is a fourth-year member of the Youngblood Playwrights Group (all playwrights are under 30) at Ensemble Studio Theatre (EST) where Headstrong was developed. His work has also been commissioned by Three Graces Theatre, EST/Sloan Project and published by Original Works.