The responses to Trump and his policies are flying fast and furious from the creative community. Only two months into his presidency and Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning playwright Robert Schenkkan’s Building the Wall imagines Trump’s plans to “solve” the “problem” of the millions of undocumented immigrants living in America in this world premiere ripped from the proverbial headlines.
The entire one act two-hander takes place in the visiting room of a prison where Gloria (Judith Moreland), an African American history professor, has received hard-to-get permission to interview Rick (Bo Foxworth), a Caucasian, tattooed inmate in an orange uniform. (I guess orange really is the new Black!) The play opens with lots of back and forth: will he/won’t he? talk about what sounds like a heinous crime Rick has been convicted of and may face the death sentence for.
After this tap dance goes on a bit too long they finally get down to brass tacks and Rick tells his side of the story. As the veteran unspools his tale, I thought that, as a true Trump believer, Rick – who worked security for The Donald and met him during his campaign – had gone postal and gunned down “illegal” aliens during a shooting spree. But as Gloria relentlessly presses the prisoner, something far more nefarious emerges.
When sweeping, widespread deportation plans are frustrated by countries simply refusing to open up their borders, the Trump junta resorts to “Plan B.” Enter Rick, who ends up playing a key role in a secretive “final solution” to the immigrant question of Hitlerian proportion. With references to gas chambers and ovens, Rick participates in the mass extermination of undocumented people who have entered and stayed in the good ol’ USA without their prerequisite papers.
Throughout the 90-minute or so show, performed without intermission, Rick comes across not as a heartless mass murderer but as a conflicted man caught in a conundrum. As the Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg Tribunals said, Rick “was just following orders.” But unlike Hogan’s Heroes’ Colonel Klink, Rick can’t claim, “I know nothing.”
The acting is excellent throughout as Gloria alternately cajoles, consoles, confronts, condemns, scolds, etc., Rick in her relentless drive for the truth that reveals as much about this academic as it does the jumpsuit-ed inmate. What I thought was the ultimate, inevitable outburst and explosion never happens – Rick simmers, rather than blows his top. Nevertheless, well-directed by Michael Michetti, the thesps acquit themselves admirably in a format that is dramatically difficult.
In essence, Schenkkan’s script has two people talking to each other in a room. They are committing one of drama’s biggest sins: “Telling” instead of “showing” what happens. This is a problem similar to that of Citizenfour, wherein Edward Snowden sits in a hotel room telling a few reporters and answering their questions about NSA’s overreaching mass surveillance throughout most of the documentary. No matter how compelling a saga may be, in visual and performing arts, it’s far more dramatic and gripping for the story to be shown, not just told. I noticed some audience members had trouble following this verbal tour-de-force.
Another problem is that Gloria does not merely play the role of an objective historian – or journalist, for that matter. She is very partisan, and her questions cover well trod ground about Hillary Clinton and so on that seem calculated to generate conflict.
Be that as it may, Schenkkan’s is a brave voice warning us about what may occur in the near future, just as Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here anti-fascist novel adapted as a play in 1936 was. Among other things, the play alludes to a Reichstag Fire type of trumped-up calamity that enables the Trump junta to suspend constitutional rights and liberties, which really is something we should all be on the lookout for in the months to come.
John Nobori’s sound design occasionally makes a nod to the prison beyond the visiting room. The set is sparse but Se Oh’s design is clever: What may be a one-way window is also a mirror, and in addition to the two characters, members of the audience are glimpsed in reflections. This, visually, may express a notion of mass guilt – how complicit are Americans in the elevation of a fascistic tweethead to the presidency? (Yes, I know about three million more Americans voted for Clinton, but Hitler rose to power in elections he likewise scored a minority of votes in. The fault is in systems that need to be changed by the masses of people in order to reflect truly popular will. And those who don’t take action are arguably guilty of at least compliance, the mirror suggests.)
If this is Trump’s honeymoon period, just imagine what the divorce will look like. The trajectory he and his junta are on is completely unsustainable. One thing’s certain: It’s not going to end well. In Wall Schenkkan imagines what happens to Il Presidente – but for my money, Trump will end up like the dictator he tweets quotes from and most resembles: Mussolini.
Building the Wall is being performed through May 21 at the Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles CA 90029. For more info: (323)663-1525 or www.FountainTheatre.com. This is the first in a series of productions set to take place at theaters across the US as part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere.
Ed Rampell is a film historian and critic based in Los Angeles. Rampell is the author of Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States and he co-authored The Hawaii Movie and Television Book. This first appeared at hollywoodprogressive.com
From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2017
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