Playwright Tony Menses opened with his world-premiere play twenty50, at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts last week with tremendous praise.
The story begins in 2050, some run for office. Others run for freedom. Andres Salazar is running for office. In an América where Latinos are now considered part of the racial majority, he has tough decisions to make. Will identifying himself as a Mexican American help or hinder him on Election Day? Will denying part of his identity be worth the potential political benefits?
As the campaign forces his mother and daughter to face their own questions of culture and identity, a mysterious stranger arrives. Searching for freedom and running from the law, his appearance jeopardizes everything the family holds dear.
On the brink of our upcoming presidential election, this suspenseful thriller grapples with the future consequences of our policies today and the true cost of the American dream.
John Moore, the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist interviewed Menses and twenty50 director Henry Godinez
John Moore: You are both college teachers. Tell me about your day-to-day academic lives.
Tony Meneses: I’m an adjunct professor at Fordham University in The Bronx and at Stevens College in Hoboken N.J. Pretty much every Monday through Thursday I teach two classes a day, and then I spend a lot of time otherwise grading. I devote some of my daytime schedule to my writing as well.
Henry Godinez: I split my time between teaching acting at Northwestern and at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, where I’m the resident Artistic Associate Director. Right now I’m working on our version of the Colorado New Play Summit. Ours is called the New Stages Series.
John Moore: Tony, when you talking about “whiteness,” you are clearly not talking strictly about skin color. What does that term mean to you?
Tony Meneses: Race is a construct. And racism in this country operates on the binary of us and them. So who gets the privilege of being considered ‘us’? That has evolved. It’s not literally biology. It’s not literally genealogy. It’s group identification. Irish people, Greek people and Jewish people weren’t always considered white, but as immigration numbers began to shift, it became beneficial for white people to include more people to maintain their supremacy. So, what this play posits is that that same evolution is now happening with the Latino community.
John Moore: But isn’t skin color what makes your premise radically different from those other examples? The Irish may have been treated as the lowest social class, but they were also inarguably white.
Tony Meneses: Yes, but Italian people aren’t exactly the most traditionally “white people” – depending of course on geography. There are white-looking Latino people within our own group, and so for them, color does not matter.
John Moore: Henry, do you believe a person’s sense of cultural identity is growing more or less important as we approach the mid-21st century America?
Henry Godinez: I think the majority the young people I work with, who are mostly ages 18 to 21, identify as multicultural students these days. They feel very strongly about self-identifying as a particular cultural group that one of their parents is from. But they are also acutely aware of being made to feel like they are somehow “less than” or not cultural enough – and that’s sometimes troubling.
John Moore: Tony, how has your overall experience with the Denver Center been, from when you were first commissioned to write a new play to having twenty50 featured in last year’s Colorado New Play Summit, to its impending world-premiere production?
Tony Meneses: It’s all been very auspicious for me from the very beginning. [New Play Director] Doug Langworthy encouraged me to follow my instincts. I offered several different ideas and his response was, “Which one do you want to write?” I wrote the first scene of twenty50 when they had me out here as a guest all the way back at the 2017 Summit. In fact, I read the first scene at that year’s late-night Playwright’s Slam. That scene is still the first scene of the play today. So to me, it’s just been such a beautiful process to unfold – and the 2019 Summit was the real culmination of all that effort. To have two weeks to work with the play, to test it with two different audiences and to get their direct feedback really changed and opened up the play so much. It was so helpful. I don’t know any other place that develops new plays like this, and for me it has been great.
John Moore: Henry, directing twenty50 as a reading was your first Summit experience last February. What were your impressions?
Henry Godinez: It was so exciting. The energy in that building and throughout the Summit was just remarkable. I loved going to the other readings. I loved chatting with all the different artists who were here. For Tony, the experience was priceless. But in a broader way, the chance to just mingle and converse with colleagues from around the country and put our fingers on each other’s pulses about what’s going on in the field was just such a wonderful opportunity.
John Moore: What would you like to say about the overall caliber of your cast?
Tony Meneses: I’m most excited about the very broad representation of different kinds of Latino actors we have in the cast, especially in terms of this conversation we’re having around colorism. Every kind of Latino person is represented within our cast, and that is very exciting for me.
John Moore: What does it mean to you both that the first place this play gets to be seen is Colorado, which once was part of Mexico?
Tony Meneses: I think it’s perfect.
Henry Godinez: Yes, Colorado is literally a Spanish word, and it was part of México. You cannot ever forget that.
John Moore: Last words?
Tony Meneses: At the end of the day, I’m giving a platform to brown bodies, Latino bodies and immigrant bodies. Hopefully that inspires a change in perspective among the audience and gives them some empathy.
Twenty50 will run through March 1, in the Space Theater, at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Helen Bonfils Theater Complex, 14th & Curtis Streets, Denver, CO. To purchase tickets online, DCPA Box Office or call 303-893-4100.
John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theatre critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.
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