“Ominous Men” is a new play by Desi Moreno-Penson. The piece is a very dark comedy centered on the issues of drugs, poverty, race, violence, and misogyny in America told through the lens of magical realism and gothic horror. The play will run from October 19 to November 3rd, 2019, at The Theater at the 14th Street Y in Manhattan.
Desi recently discussed this play and her creative process via an exclusive interview.
Meagan (MM): How did you get into writing and what drew you to playwriting in particular?
Desi Moreno-Penson (DMP): I started out as an actor first. I earned my BFA degree in Acting from the Greer Garson Theater Center at the College of Santa Fe in Santa Fe, NM. Soon after graduation, I received a scholarship to study at the British American Drama Academy (BADA) in London for a year. Then I returned home to New York City and proceeded to “pound the pavement” as a struggling actor for 13 years. I did get work, theater mostly; lots of touring shows including a tour production of Macbeth in Germany. This was followed by small roles in television and films like Spike Lee’s Girl 6, and Extreme Measures with Hugh Grant. But by the time I reached my 30s, I needed a change. I knew I still wanted to be an artist, so I went back to school and got my MFA degree in Dramaturgy and Theater Criticism from Brooklyn College. That’s when I began writing plays.
MM: How would you describe your style and what most inspires your plays?
DMP: As a playwright, I’d like to think I’m bold, spirited, brave, and rather impudent. I try to keep my writing immediate, visceral, and unsentimental, devoid of apology or too much earnestness. Too much sincerity spoils the drama, too little honesty will kill an audience’s trust. There’s always a balance, and I love pushing the envelope. I like thinking about what my imagination looks like. I’m intrigued by the bizarre, surreal, and dark oddness of pedestrian life. I’m drawn to the underdog, the outsider, mainly because I have always considered myself an outsider, my compassion for the “lone wolf” individual drives most of my narratives. I like scary stories and I’m deeply curious about the supernatural, about the possibility of a world beyond this world. I believe that all peoples and cultures have a sense of magic and the preternatural. And as a second-generation Nuyorican (Of Puerto Rican descent, born and raised in New York City), I choose to write weird stories because sometimes the tenets of magical realism are just not “magical” enough for me within the context of a more traditional Latinx play.
MM: Where did you get the idea for OMINOUS MEN?
DMP: With OMINOUS MEN, I borrowed from ancient, Gothic tropes of amoral men trying to outwit the Devil (or any malevolent death entity of your choice!), by playing games of chance. The play is the third installment in a cycle of plays I have been developing and writing called Nuyorican Gothic: dark, stylized, fantastical plays that take place in The Bronx, featuring heightened, poetic language, Gothic themes, and Nuyorican characters. The first play of the cycle, DEVIL LAND, is an adult fairy tale of child abduction and Taino mysticism set in the boiler room of a Bronx apartment building. In 2014, it received its Midwest premiere at Urban Theater Company in Chicago, was a semifinalist for the Princess Grace Award, and is published by Broadway Play Publishing. With the second play, COMIDA DE PUTA (F%&king Lousy Food), I sought inspiration from Greek tragedy with the Phaedra legend of Euripede’s Hippolytus in order to tell a tale of unrequited lust, gentrification, and urban witchery in a run-down Bronx bodega. The play was a finalist for the 2014 Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, in the same year, it received its world premiere production at the West End Theater in New York City, produced by MultiStages Theater Company, and received Honorable Mention on The Kilroys List. With all three plays, I continue to pursue a theme that has captured my attention as a writer: the devastating effects of post-colonialism on second and third-generation Latinos; specifically, the Puerto Rican community in New York City. There are still many people in the country that believe Puerto Ricans are not actually American citizens. With the ongoing controversy that continues to dog the immigration issue, colonialism that is perpetrated upon any cultural group will create the likelihood of deep, psychological scars. As such, I believe it is a subject worthy of continued examination. I first began formulating ideas for OMINOUS MEN by immersing myself into the history of the Grand Concourse in The Bronx; a once affluent area celebrated as the Jewish Promised Land in the 1950s. In addition, I have explored the history of the Concourse Plaza Hotel, as well as the urban blight that ravaged the same area in the late 60s to the early 80s, the period known as The Burning Times.
MM: How many plays have you written and what are they about?
DMP: I think that would take too long to get into here, however, for anyone who’s interested in becoming more familiar with my work, I have plays that are available for downloading on my New Play Exchange Profile page, https://newplayexchange.org/users/474/desi-moreno-penson, and my plays, DEVIL LAND, GHOST LIGHT, LAZARUS DISPOSED, and 3 TO A SESSION: A MONSTER’S TALE are published by Broadway Play Publishing, https://www.broadwayplaypub.com/play-authors/desi-moreno-penson/.
MM: How did you go about getting this play cast and staged?
DMP: OMINOUS MEN won the 2017 MultiStages New Works Contest, sponsored by MultiStages Theater Company based in New York City, https://multistages.org/. This was my second win; the first one in 2013 with COMIDA DE PUTA (F%&king Lousy Food). What’s wonderful about winning this contest, is that your play gets to go through this really intense development process, which culminates in a professional, world premiere production, produced by MultiStages and directed by MultiStages artistic/producing director, Lorca Peress. Lorca is a brilliant, visionary director who’s passionately committed to supporting and presenting the works of such diverse writers as myself, Fengar Gael (The Island of No Tomorrows), and Jamuna Yvette Sirker (Hell and High Water). Lorca instinctively understands how the theater is (or at least should be) inclusive of ALL stories and storytellers. As a Latina playwright, I consider myself blessed to have had the opportunities afforded to me by MultiStages, to further develop my writing and to have it presented before a paying audience. That’s the dream for any playwright, either struggling or established. And as OMINOUS MEN is a play that features an all-male cast dealing with such issues as race, misogyny, and violence in America, it was Lorca’s idea to have an all-female design team to further enhance the production. Ultimately, all casting and staging for OMINOUS MEN came down to the efforts of Lorca and her excellent team.
MM: What do you hope audiences will take away from the play?
DMP: I want for people to remember that for all the good humanity can bring to the world, we are also capable of great evil. Every person has a choice to make every day. The play’s protagonist, Butch, feels that because of the difficult circumstances of his life, his choices do not come down to him. Therefore, the bad things that he does are never truly his responsibility. I also want for people to experience Latinx characters as more than just their stereotypes. It’s ironic, because at first glance, the play seems to feature Latinx characters that are stamped from the same stereotypical mold. But if an audience continues to watch, and to listen, they will soon learn that these are not the characters they may have been expecting. In addition, I want for people to get a real kick out of watching a weird, creepy story on the stage. For some of us, there’s something fun, child-like, and nostalgic out of enjoying a scary story, especially one that features ghosts and demonic ghouls. And this is the best time of the year for it!
MM: Do you have other writing projects coming up?
DMP: I was actually planning on taking a break after OMINOUS MEN. I have about three full-length plays that I need to get back to work on. So, I suspect I will be spending a good deal of time in writerly isolation, doing research and all kinds of playwriting stuff. However, a short play of mine, RECONCILE, BITCH will be featured as part of DARK PLANET: Not Your Mother’s Valentine’s Day, an evening of short, dark comedies that will run for three weeks at Theater at the 14th Street Y in February 2020, https://www.broadwayworld.com/article/DARK-PLANET-Not-Your-Mothers-Valentines-Day-Comes-to-the-14th-Street-Y-Theatre-20190810. Produced by Planet Connections Theater Festivity, this event will be running in rep with THE IMPERFECT LOVE SONG OF DELILAH AND VENEZIO, a new play written and directed by Jose Rivera.