Recipient of the 2020 Theatre503 International Playwriting Award Playwright and Activist Pravin Wilkins talks about his show ‘Moreno’ to be staged at Theatre503

Announced during the height of the pandemic, Theatre503’s International Playwriting Award winner Pravin Wilkins would have been due to have had his pertinent play Moreno staged shortly after. However, due to the unpredictability of what was happening globally at the time, would have to wait for this to finally happen. Nearly two years post the announcement, Moreno receives its much deserved debut – a piece following American footballer Luis Moreno’s struggle to overcome injury whilst battling whether to use his platform to take a stand post Civil Rights Activist Colin Kaepernick’s 2016 monumental decision to do so on the world’s stage. Ahead of the production, which will be staged from 1st March at Theatre503, Pravin tells us more about how it feels to have won the playwriting award, his inspirations for the play and his hopes for the future!

Hi Pravin, you’re the recipient of the 2020 Theatre503 International Playwriting Award for your show Moreno. How does it feel to have been recognised for your work?

WHEW. First off, I’m honored to have had my play chosen as the winner from a pretty vast collection of scripts & a stellar group of finalists. As I read the synopses of the other finalists’ plays–prior to the announcement of the winner–I won’t lie: I was worried… they all sounded incredible! So yeah, being recognized at this level, against really steep competition, is extremely validating. On top of that, it’s particularly special to receive this award in recognition of a play that I have believed in so deeply for many years.

Moreno follows American footballer Luis Moreno’s struggle to overcome injury whilst battling whether to use his platform to take a stand post Colin Kaepernick’s monumental decision to do so on the world’s stage. What was it about this particular historical moment that drew you to explore this further?

To answer that question, I have to tell you what the sport means to me. I fell in love with American football as a kid & played throughout high school. In the classroom, it was so easy to fake it: I could slink back in my seat, listen to music, zone out… on the field, I had to be present in every way. Mentally, physically, emotionally. I felt alive in that space & I developed really strong bonds with the guys I played with–in part because the rigor and violence of the sport demanded total investment. And in order to care for one another in this harsh environment, we as players were taught to treat one another as brothers. So when Colin Kaepernick first made a statement by sitting during a pre-game performance of the national anthem to protest police brutality against Black people, I saw a teammate, a brother trying to lift up his people. I think what was lost in most of the ensuing mainstream media conversations about Kaepernick & the protest movement that swept the NFL & the sports world were the stories and perspectives of players who joined Kaep in solidarity. This play seeks to put the personal stories of players at the center of the conversation; I believe that only from this starting point can any of us form a fair, empathy-informed opinion on the protests.

You received your MFA in Dramatic Writing from Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama prior to your win in what was a very challenging and unpredictable year, what did this mean to you? How has the course shaped you as a writer?

It meant so much to me to finish my degree in 2020, despite the final semester being somewhat derailed by the pandemic. During my time at CMU, I met & collaborated with so many talented playwrights, actors, directors, designers, and poets. The incredible writers in my cohort each taught me about new forms, new perspectives, new ways to tell a story. CMU was also where I honed my craft into something precise & mastered the art of revision. In the past, I think I was always too attached to first drafts. If my playwriting instructor, Rob Handel, taught me one thing, it was how to identify the core of the story I wanted to tell and let go of any lines or scenes or even characters & acts that didn’t live at that core.

Could you tell me about what else you’re currently up to?

Organized labor and unionization efforts have really become the center of my artistic life recently. From workers organizing for better wages and benefits at my undergraduate campus in 2018 (which famously culminated in the late Representative John Lewis cancelling his commencement address to my graduating class) to the internationally-covered unionization drives at Starbucks and Amazon to the successful union vote among nurses at West Penn Hospital in Pittsburgh–where my partner worked at the time as NICU nurse–I feel the world is sending me a message that I as an artist have an imperative to amplify. During a time of heinous inequality and stratification of wealth, workers will and must come together to demand what we deserve; this conflict should be represented on stage and on screen with care and reverence. What’s more, labor organizing must be viewed both through a contemporary and a historical lens in order for us to see a full picture of the struggle in which we find ourselves today. That’s why I am working on two projects in this vein: first, a play centering a group of fictional university campus workers in San Diego, California who must consider bucking their union representation when it appears their leaders are colluding with administrators; second, a TV drama set in late 1800s Chicago, covering the events that culminated in the Haymarket Riots and the unjust execution of four anarchist labor organizers. The aim of the former is to spotlight and investigate the burgeoning modern revival of unions; the latter, to pay homage to the workers and organizers of generations past, whose struggles are inextricably linked with ours.

Moreno will receive support and development from Theatre503 and be published by Samuel French Ltd. What can audiences expect from the show?

Moreno is a journey into the viciously competitive money-making-machine of American football, told through the eyes of the players who catch the TDs & dance the dances & lay the hits–and put their bodies on the line to do so. With the drama of paychecks & win streaks in the foreground–and the growing Black Lives Matter movement & political rise of Donald Trump in the backdrop–four NFL superstars must decide what they believe in, what they are willing to stand for, and what it means to be teammates. Big egos will clash in sometimes hilarious & sometimes heartbreaking ways as the four young men at the center of the play navigate an extremely consequential and volatile political moment.

What would you like for audiences to take away from the show?

Insofar as these seemingly “American” problems are relevant for UK audiences who will be seeing the show, it bears mentioning that the twin issues of racism in systems of policing and racism in sports are not uniquely American problems (I’m recalling now the Euro 2020 Final for some reason…). That being said, what’s most important to me is that audiences empathize with the characters, and by extension the very real players who had even realer reasons to join in solidarity with what became a global protest movement. Years ago, Kaepernick & so many others tried to send a message to the people & the government of the United States that police violence and systemic racism needed to be addressed in a tangible and transformative way. As far as I’m concerned, the increasingly violent and inhumane police murders of Black people in the U.S.–murders that led to the largest sustained protest movement in American history during 2020–illustrate quite clearly that the message has not been received. Acknowledging that reality, I want audiences to walk away understanding that anything less than tangible solidarity with Black & brown people equals tacit support of a system built to oppress millions.

What are your hopes for the future?

For the future of this play, I hope it travels the world & of course makes its way back to the United States. My dream is for Colin Kaepernick or any of the players who participated in the movement to come see Moreno, although that might be an outlandish wish. I would also love for my teammates from my high school days to someday be able to see this piece.

For my future, I hope to continue to make meaningful contributions to necessary struggles through my art.

For the future of my country, I hope we stop pouring money into violently policing and imprisoning our people and start pouring money into supporting and caring for our Black and brown kin and communities.

Questions by Lucy Basaba.

Moreno will show from Tuesday 1st until Saturday 26th March 2022 at Theatre503. To find out more about the production, visit here…

Written by Theatrefullstop