Gridiron Tragedy as Life Lesson

In Playing the Assassin—at the Delaware Theatre Company—Wilmington’s David Robson uses the Jack Tatum-Darryl Stingley incident to address moral quandaries

David Robson doesn’t remember everything about the first play his mother took him to see—it was Ted Tally’s Terra Nova, about an ill-fated British expedition to the South Pole—but he does remember how the experience made him feel. “There’s something so primal about the magic of theater,” he says. “You see the sweat from the actors’ brows, their expressions, you’re on the journey with them. It’s an event…and every night is different. I loved that.”

Born in Philadelphia, Robson, who is 49, gives equal credit to his mom, Joan, and his wife, Sonja, for exposing him to theater. He and Sonja met in 1990 while both were auditioning for The Foreigner, a play produced by Stagecrafters in Chestnut Hill, Pa. “Hi, I’m David Robson…sorry I spit in your face,” was his post-audition attempt at wooing her. They were married three years later, and now live in Wilmington with their 15-year-old daughter, Ingrid.

Robson had written and published poetry but had never written a play. “Although I love poetry, it’s a solitary medium,” he says. “I liked the conversation of plays, the idea of subjects talking to one another and working out their differences.” So he decided to give it a try.

He began to write for the upstart City Theater Company (CTC) in Wilmington. He wrote and acted in Death of America and other works for CTC in its O’Friel’s “Pub Plays” days during the mid-‘90s. He also participated in CTC’s 10-Minute Play Festivals and a 2012 Community Series called Cruel, Calm, and Neglected, which featured four nights of his one-act plays.

“I have a great respect for what they’ve created,” Robson says of CTC founders Jon Cooper, Tom Shade and current Artistic Director Michael Gray. “Experiences that are very visceral; I’ve always admired them for that.”

City Theater Company continues to collaborate with Robson today. Earlier this year, CTC held an open reading of his new work, Afterbirth of a Nation. It’s a historical-fiction farce set in 1915 during the White House screening of Birth of a Nation. “I love history and was fascinated with the movie [Birth of a Nation],” Robson says. “I’d never written a full-length farce, but thought, ‘It would be great if we could work on this together and build all the visual stuff that actors bring to the piece.’” The play will be workshopped by CTC early next year.

David Robson (R) goes over lines with Ezra Knight and Garrett Lee Hendricks during a rehearsal. (Photo by Breck Willis, Delaware Theatre Company)
David Robson (R) goes over lines with Ezra Knight and Garrett Lee Hendricks during a rehearsal. (Photo by Breck Willis, Delaware Theatre Company)

Now the Wilmington playwright is celebrating another transformative theatrical event: the Delaware premiere of his new work, Playing the Assassin, which opened at Delaware Theatre Company on Oct. 21. It’s a powerful, thought-provoking, two-man performance, and perhaps the first that melds the brutality of American professional sports with the raw emotion of the human condition. The play runs through Sunday, Nov. 8.

In 2010, Robson came across the obituary of Jack Tatum, the notoriously hard-nosed Oakland Raider whose tackle paralyzed New England receiver Darryl Stingley in 1978.

Stingley, who was on his way to becoming one of the highest-paid NFL players of his time, instead became a quadriplegic at 26 and died from complications of his injury in 2007 at the age of 55. The hit, which was legal and drew no penalties, became a touchstone for the topic of violence in the NFL.

Robson was a football fan as a child and remembers that fateful game. “It was horrifying to me then,” he says. “It was the first time I realized football could actually be dangerous, actually hurt someone.”

After reading the obituary, it occurred to Robson that Tatum and Stingley had never reconciled. “There was no redemptive moment for them,” he says. That became the seed of his play, although it’s not written as a biography or documentary. “I like writing about unfinished business. It allows me to ‘finish a story,’ in a way,” he says.

Robson also likes the two-character form because it’s like a classic steel-cage wrestling match – one has to come out victorious, but both are going to be damaged. How will both people change as their journey progresses?

The play, while a Delaware premiere, was performed by InterAct Theatre/Act II Playhouse in Philadelphia in 2012; Penguin Rep Theatre in Stony Brook, N. Y., in 2014; and Hartford Theatreworks in Hartford, Conn., in March-April of this year. Actors Garrett Lee Hendricks and Ezra Knight and Director Joe Brancato, who worked the Penguin and Hartford productions, will also do the DTC show.

“It’s kind of an artistic marriage,” Robson says of his relationship with Brancato. “He’s not only a great creative partner who really ‘gets’ me, but he also has amazing ways to get work into the right hands. I feel lucky in that regard.”

Robson is thrilled to bring his work to the First State spotlight. “The proudest – maybe weirdest – thing for me is that I’m a Delaware playwright being produced at Delaware Theatre Company,” he says. “It’s a badge of honor. It would be great if this opens the door to other writers and artists here.”

Robson is careful to note that while he appreciates football as a sport, he doesn’t consider Playing the Assassin a pro- or anti-football play. “It’s really about choices, about relationships, about moral quandaries.” His hope is that audiences leave interacting with one another, connecting the dots within their own experiences, maybe talking about how they make choices in their own lives.

“Isn’t the reason you go to theater is to feel connected to the art itself?” asks Robson. “Is there any other art form that gives you that kind of direct connection…and isn’t that what we’re all looking for?”