Simple acts can often have huge repercussions. In 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus and became ‘the first lady of civil rights’ and ‘mother of the freedom movement’. In 1968 Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in defence of human rights as The Star-Spangled Banner played at the Olympic award ceremony and in 2016 Colin Kaepernick ‘took the knee’ to the same tune at a 49ers NFL game, protesting police brutality and racial inequality.

a bold foray into the world of sport, politics, the media and private lives

Pravin Wilkins’ debut play, Moreno, at Theatre503, where it won their International Playwriting Award in 2020, is built around that event. The focus is not on the big national picture, but rather on how it challenged other players and clubs to declare their position or awkwardly make an attempt to remain neutral. Hence set incorporates an NFL locker room and the field of play, with the floor and walls imaginatively decorated in bright green with white line-markings. Combined with the team's red and white strip, designer Aldo Vazques has used a vibrant palette that vividly asserts itself.

The opening scenes are similarly ‘in-yer-face’, with quick-fire banter, hip-hop music and guys brashly shouting at each other. This goes on for what might be called the first quarter. It sets the scene, but in terms of the whole play, it feels like more padding than the players have on their shoulders. There’s a cast of just four: Luis Moreno (Sebastián Capitán Viveros): 26; running back from Chicago; full of himself and out for the money and media attention, but beneath the façade is a kind heart; Ezekiel Williams (Joseph Black): 33; linebacker; big muscular African-American guy; no-nonsense, self-educated and knows his politics; Cre’von Garçon (Hayden Mclean): 23; Haitian-American quarterback; ‘the kind of guy who would get into a fight, lose and still walk away talking shit’; streetwise but empathetic; Danny Lombardo (Matt Whitchurch: 32; good-looking white quarterback; football is his life and the stadium his place of worship. This social and ethnic mix is put into the turbulent melting-pot of debate to be further stirred by the election of Donald Trump. Interwoven are family stories and tales of first-hand experiences at the hands of the rising right.

The play movies on apace in the second quarter and the powerful press conferences certainly count as touchdowns and balance out some less-entertaining ball-passing in the second half. The ensemble works together as a well-trained team should. Each asserts his own identity, has his moments of glory but still knows it’s the team that matters. Credit also needs to go to the managers and coaches. Director Nancy Medina has some lulls in the game but along with movement director Ingrid Mackinnon fills the stage with action, vehement exposition and set pieces. Given where the characters are supposed to come from and how they should sound casting director Isabella Odoffin and voice and dialect coach Esi Acquaah-Harrison have scored a triumph in this production given the natural voices and background of the actors.

With Moreno, Pravin Wilkins makes a bold foray into the world of sport, politics, the media and private lives and the play like any game has its highlights among the attempts to balance those elements and deliver consistently entertaining and thought-provoking theatre.

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The Blurb

Four pro football players respond to a pivotal moment in US history when Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem. In the high octane theatre of the football stadium each must wrestle with the impact of choosing whether or not to bring politics onto the pitch and the potentially devastating outcomes to their lives and careers of their decision. Pravin Wilkins’ astonishing debut shines a light on race, sporting culture and American celebrity in a way not seen before on our stage.

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