The Stage - MORENO Review **** "signficant and superbly performed"
Posted on 10 March 2022
Accomplished, superbly performed debut play about sport and race
In 2016, Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit out and then take the knee during the national anthem of an NFL game created societal wedges and earned the disapproval of soon-to-be president Donald Trump. This history defining moment is the inspiration behind Pravin Wilkins’ accomplished debut Moreno (the 2020 winner of the Theatre503 International Playwriting Award) and it holds contemporary resonance even across the pond.
Set in and around an NFL stadium (Aldo Vazquez’s neat set design acts as changing room, side line and pitch), Wilkins sets up a classic locker-room rapport between four players driven by competitiveness, ego and a collective desire to win. We are privy to their testosterone fuelled pre-game rituals, but when Zeki (Joseph Black), a Kaepernick-inspired whistleblower, chooses to protest, their ‘bromance’ is derailed.
Wilkins’ play comments on the intersection of sport and racial politics – revealing the layered power structures at play in the industry. Zeki likens the trading of black players by white club owners to slavery while Lombardo, the white quarterback driven by his love for winning, claims the field should be a neutral zone free from ‘wokeness’. A racial attack on Moreno’s mother provides impetus for a more nuanced discourse on activism on the pitch in the context of power and fame.
The writing is witty and brought to life by exceptional performances from the cast members who understand the depth of Wilkins’ characters. Matt Whitchurch is rambunctious and slightly threatening as Lombardo while Joseph Black commands the stage as the authoritative Zeki. Sebastián Capitán Viveros adopts a likeable swagger in the titular role while Hayden McLean provides light relief as Cre’Von, the happy-go-lucky cornerback.
Nancy Medina’s sensitive direction charters their relationships rhythmically. The staging is clean and controlled to not draw focus from the meaningful intertwining of character arcs. The play is as much about politics as it is about the macro impacts on the players’ personal lives of their micro actions on the pitch. Conversational scenes are balanced with bursts of Ingrid Mackinnon’s vigorous choreography to thumping beats. It is undeniably thrilling to watch burly bodies as they jump, dart and grind across Theatre503’s tiny stage.
Duramaney Kamara and Laura Howard’s design creates the depths and corners of the pitch. Malena Arcucci’s costumes are detailed: the foursome wrestle with their cumbersome shoulder pads, much as how they wrestle with their own politics.
Moreno’s concluding scene may not be the final touchdown audiences are expecting but it leaves room for the crackle of hope for new beginnings, while the real power lies in the show’s thoughtful curtain call.
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Evening Standard - Moreno review: NFL play about taking the knee makes for a sparky debut
Posted on 9 March 2022
Pravin Wilkins’s first full-length play explores the drama around one teammate taking the knee.
ow will a highly-paid, Mexican-American NFL player react when his black teammate takes the knee? That’s the premise of US newcomer Pravin Wilkins’s first full-length play, which is hugely entertaining and politically sparky, if sometimes cumbersome in its plotting.
It also has novelty. Sport rarely gets a run-out in London theatre: the macho melodramatics of American football even less often. You can almost smell the testosterone in Nancy Medina’s production, which conjures the heady, crotch-grabbing, often adversarial swagger of the locker room with just four talented actors, some stylised action and a thumping soundtrack.
Indeed, it’s curious that this play has landed in London so soon after Red Pitch and Fair Play at the Bush, which similarly distilled the kinetic energy of estate soccer and athletics. Maybe theatre has got over the idea of sport as a fitter, richer rival, and realised its dramatic potential.
Anyway, Luis Moreno (a charismatic Sebastián Capitán Viveros) is a high-rolling hotshot, signed to an eye-catching new contract after a potentially career-ending injury. His new, deliberately un-named team is represented by bullish white quarterback Danny and two black defenders: easygoing Cre’von and stern, thoughtful Ezekiel. When Trump becomes president, racists are emboldened and symbolic protest sweeps through their sport, the uneasy truce they hold between individualism and teamwork begins to fracture.
Wilkins has interesting things to say about how economics and ethnicity play into ideas of validation. But there’s too much yik-yak explanation in the first half, and it feels like ‘issues’ have been apportioned like numbered jerseys. Ezekiel lives in the shadow of activist parents; Danny has a gay brother; Moreno is triggered into taking a side when his own mum is threatened.
Once that happens, though, the ideas become more subtle and provoking. Will Moreno’s participation accelerate or hijack the protest? What constitutes a victory? And how, as Ezekiel says, do they get the “mythical conscientious white folks” on side?
Although the story hits many obvious marks, the action is thrillingly pacy and the relationships well drawn, particularly Moreno’s bromance with Hayden McLean’s likeable Cre’von and his struggle to understand Joseph Black’s forceful Ezekiel.
Viveros, who made a quietly confident London stage debut in Lynn Nottage’s Evening Standard award-winning play Sweat in 2019, is almost unrecognisable here as the cocksure but fretful Moreno. Matt Whitchurch gives an energetic performance as Danny but, for once, the white guy has the least important voice on stage.
Despite its mechanically engineered narrative, this is an arresting debut, full of brio and confident dialogue. Ezekiel constantly drops references that Moreno doesn’t get, and this gains an extra level of knowing audacity in Medina’s production, given most of the audience probably wouldn’t know a tight end from a wide receiver. I loved Moreno despite its faults. And I don’t even like sport.
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