BWW Review: In BUILDING THE WALL, Playwright Robert Schenkkan Offers a Chilling Call to Action
A wave of new plays addressing social unrest are now hitting the stages of Los Angeles theaters. Last weekend I saw Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan's BUILDING THE WALL at Fountain Theatre, the first in a series of productions set to take place at theaters across the U.S. as part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere. Written as a reaction to the dawn of the Trump presidency, Schenkkan offers a direct response to his immigration policies, revealing how those policies might lead to a terrifying, seemingly inconceivable, yet inevitable conclusion.
Multiple-award winner Michael Michetti directs the play, set in the very near future after the Trump administration has carried out his campaign promise to round up and detain millions of immigrants. Taking place in a visiting room at a local prison, we meet Gloria (Judith Moreland) a college professor there to interview Rick (Bo Foxworth), the former supervisor of a private prison now in an orange jumpsuit, As time progresses, it becomes clear how federal policy escalated into something previously unimaginable, with flashbacks reminiscent to how the people of Germany followed orders from the Nazi Administration as being "the best solution" for the problem of holding too many people in an encampment as more arrived day-by-day.
If anything, my outrage at Rick's seeming acceptance of his role in the crime chilled me to the bone, giving me a real sense of how easy it will be to talk people into following the rules of an administration working against human rights. Foxworth gives a tour-de-force performance, emotionally and intellectually, so that you both hate and feel sorry for this man who did what he thought was the right thing for all the wrong reasons. Of course, Rick's imprisonment signals the end of that fateful program, but the problem of having too many people to be deported no doubt since exists, wall or no wall.Rick's challenging presence makes Gloria nervous as he circles her, especially since she realizes Rick's bigotry is also aimed at her as a black woman. You can see it in her physical reactions and quiet vocalizations, asking herself if he did this to undocumented Latinos, who might be next on the list if he gets out of prison? But we are assured this monster is in solitary confinement with no hope of parole, since no doubt millions of people would love nothing more than to hang him from the nearest tree.
A chilling factor reflected in the title is the wall of fear being created by our government, seeking to have Americans be fearful of each other. And just how far would the government go to create enemies of the American people, perhaps bombing our own facilities and blaming others? As FDR said, "There is nothing to fear but fear itself," which made me think about how fearing those we think are "out to get us" can lead to this final solution scenario or even the next World War.
"This is an urgent cry of warning from a leading voice in the American theater," says Fountain co-artistic director Stephen Sachs. "It's an opportunity for the Fountain to make its voice heard through our art. This project is more than a play. It's already ignited a national firestorm with theaters across the country signing up to produce it.""Audiences can expect to be very rattled by this play," notes Michetti. "Robert lays out a clear path of where we could all too easily end up if we don't change course. But the idea is not for people to go home depressed. It's a call to action. We've got to stop this from happening. We need to step up and exercise our rights as citizens to create positive change."
During the run, the Fountain will host post-performance discussions, with two immigration reform activists on the day I attended who opened my eyes to what is going on in California detention encampments now. Included in programs are stamped, self-addressed postcards to Trump, blank for you to write in whatever comments you wish to relate to him, whether about immigration or anything else you wish to tell him. Be sure to add your completed card to the lobby mailbox.
Thankfully theatre is doing its part to speak up and not be silent in the face of such outrageous government policies, with kudos given to all aspects of this riveting, harrowing and illuminating cautionary tale. No doubt BUILDING THE WALL will encourage you to practice democracy and never remain silent when new government policies are put in place that threaten human rights.
BUILDING THE WALL runs through May 21, with performances on Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m.; and Mondays at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $15-$35; every Monday is Pay-What-You-Can. The Fountain Theatre is located at 5060 Fountain Avenue (at Normandie) in Los Angeles. Secure, on-site parking is available for $5. For reservations and information, call (323) 663-1525 or go to www.FountainTheatre.com.
Photos by Ed Krieger