Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Pravin Wilkins: Moreno

By | Published on Friday 25 February 2022

Coming up this week at London’s Theatre503 is the staging of ‘Moreno’, a new play by US based playwright, poet and fiction writer Pravin Wilkins.

The play was the winner of Theatre503’s International Playwriting Award in 2020, chosen from 1719 scripts sent in from 45 different countries, and it tells the story of a group of NFL players who must decide where they stand on the issues of racial injustice and police brutality, in the wake of high profile protests by Colin Kaepernick.

I really wanted to find out more about the play and its inspiration, so I arranged a chat with the playwright, Pravin Wilkins, ahead of opening night.

CM: Can you begin by telling us something about the narrative of ‘Moreno’? What story does it tell?
PW: ‘Moreno’ is the story of four fictional NFL players who, during the 2016-2017 season, must decide where they stand on the protests against police violence and racial injustice that swept through the league after Colin Kaepernick initially sat – and then began taking a knee – during pre-game performances of the US national anthem.

During this pivotal moment in US sports history – and US history in general, with the candidacy and election of Donald Trump looming over everything – each player is challenged to ask themselves what they truly value, how to fight for it, and what they expect from one another as teammates. We follow the players through this whole season, as alliances shift, and bonds are forged and broken.

CM: What themes does the play explore?
PW: The play explores themes of masculinity, race, heritage, class, and collectivism vs. individualism. Centering four men, each of different cultural backgrounds – indeed, the two black characters in the show are not of the same ethnic origin – the themes are explored both through the parallels and contrasts between their perspectives. On a broader social level, the play investigates how people of disparate backgrounds might – or might not – come together to fight for equality; on the more minute, personal level, the play explores what conflict, care, and collaboration look like in a hyper-masculine space.

CM: Who are the central characters of the piece?
PW: In order of appearance, the characters are runningback Luis Moreno, cornerback Cre’von Garcon, linebacker Ezekiel Williams, and quarterback Danny Lombardo. Folks with whom I’ve worked on the play, from workshops to this production, have described it as an ensemble piece – I think this is true, as the show could not happen without any of these guys.

CM: What was the inspiration for the play? What made you want to write something with this subject and these themes?
PW: I was deeply inspired by Kaepernick’s protest, but what truly drove me to write ‘Moreno’ was the backlash he faced, the co-option of his statement by mainstream media, and the lack of attention to players’ real stories in the ensuing national – and international – conversation about the topic.

So it was the wilful misinterpretation and degradation of his message that inspired me most to write about this movement, to put on record and on stage what I felt was a more honest and thoughtful representation of these events. On top of all that, as a non-black person of colour, I wanted to explore the beauty and the complications of solidarity between different communities of black and brown people.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about what it’s been like working with the rest of the creative team and the performers?
PW: It has been a truly exceptional experience in rehearsals. For some time, I had been tuning in virtually, which honestly worked pretty well. Now that I’ve come to London, however, it is really different to see everybody in person, to feel the energy in the room. To have so many incredibly talented people putting in their all to realise and contribute to my vision… is surreal, exhilarating, and deeply fulfilling. I could not be happier with this team.

CM: Now let’s talk a bit more about you: did you always want a career in the arts, and how did it begin?
PW: It was during high school that I discovered the depth of my love for literature and film; one teacher in particular, Mr. Ojeda, really opened that door for me. In his classes, we read books like ‘The Bluest Eye’ and watched films like ‘Do the Right Thing’’, stories in which I saw elements of myself while simultaneously learning so much about the lives of others.

I knew then that I wanted to be an artist – to create stories in which other people would see themselves too – so I began to pursue a degree in literature. In college at UC San Diego, I started writing plays and staging them with my fellow students: it was through these experiences that I fell in love with live theatre, ultimately deciding to pursue further study at Carnegie Mellon University with the hope of becoming a professional playwright.

CM: What aims and hopes do you have for the future?
PW: I have big dreams for ‘Moreno’, which I believe is a crucial play at this moment. I certainly hope it makes its way to the US, where I feel a sort of unearned malaise has taken over after Trump’s defeat in 2020. Despite the repudiation of Trump’s explicitly white supremacist agenda, there has not been substantive change in policing, criminal justice, or the carceral system under the Biden administration. Those unfortunate facts are a big reason why this play remains essential.

Besides my hopes for ‘Moreno’, I hope my other works continue to find their way to new stages. I am also interested in writing for TV, which has become such an exciting medium for long-form storytelling.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
PW: I am most interested in writing about social movements and the challenges of collective action. For the past couple years, between having won the 503 award and now, I had been focusing much more on my work in the community as an educator and organiser than on my work as a writer.

However, I believe that there are seasons to creative life, and it is the moments when I am writing less that I take in more, when I learn about what it is I truly want to write about. From witnessing disputes between campus workers and university administration during my time at UC San Diego to seeing nurses unionise at the hospital where my girlfriend worked in Pittsburgh, I believe we are experiencing an essential resurgence of labour organising.

There is so much drama to explore in these such events, and I believe it is my responsibility as an artist to write about them from a perspective that is highly sympathetic to the struggles of the working class.

‘Moreno’ is on at Theatre503 from 1-26 Mar. For more information and to book tickets, see the venue website here.