|Shermona Mitchell and Tim Gouran in Building the Wall (Richard Sloniker)|
Building the Wall
(at 12th Avenue Arts)
Through December 23, 2017
Robert Schenkkan’s blistering play, Building the Wall, is not a play of nuance. He wrote it in an apparent white-hot fury on the eve of the 2016 election and it’s been refined, slightly, since Trump won, to account for more real-time events. Since most of Schenkkan's career writing is of historic events and conversations that propel events rather than “dramatic” scenes, he has become a master at building energy in conversation.
This 75 minute play presents Rick in prison. Rick (Tim Gouran) has done something awful and Gloria (Shermona Mitchell), a professor of history (it seems), wants to understand how he got to this point. Her letter to Rick asking to interview him appealed to him, he says, because of its honesty, and so he allows her to visit.
There are two key pieces of information about this futuristic play that might help you understand the play as it unfolds: There has been a terrorist attack in New York City (this is not a real event but it propels the action of this hypothetical play); and because of the attack, President Trump subsequently declared “martial law.”
Rick was an administrator of a private corporation’s immigration detention center. As Gloria asks about how he got that job and subsequent events, he explains how, after immigrants began being rounded up at terrifyingly speedy rates and were shoved into these centers to be repatriated in their countries of origin, they began to crowd and overrun the facilities.
Rick details how that meant that medical services ran thin, sanitation could not be kept up with and convicted criminals were mixed in with regular families (including elderly and children). He describes a systemic breakdown of norms. Normally, personal belongings were taken and cataloged at entry to the facility. Normally, convicts were separated from immigrants who had “just” violated immigration law and nothing else. Normally, enough people got repatriated to keep up with the numbers newly arrived.
Later, restricting personal property got to be too time-consuming and contraband was available for people to bribe and buy medicine, and later, if not with possessions, then people were able to – or forced to – use sexual favors to survive. New temporary facilities were needed, and Rick chose a sports stadium to house people, which created terrible anxiety for those from South American countries where stadiums had been used to house detainees and people disappeared from them.
The breakdown of the system is very clear. The deterioration of support for a man in charge of one facility is shown to create an emergency management situation that never regains any kind of regular order. Schenkkan’s nightmare doesn’t stop there. His message is very clear. He is essentially describing people who could be Rick in World War II. He demonstrates, in this play, how reasonable people can be drawn into making unreasonable decisions.
Schenkkan also uses current events to indict those at the top who make the real policy decisions that create pressure downward for those who have to implement them. A reference to Abu Graib details who paid the price and who did not – no one in G.W. Bush’s administration ever was held responsible.
Schenkkan also works to help decipher Trump supporters. Rick is not a die-hard supporter, but certainly likes what Trump said about immigration and working folks. Gouran portrays a reasonable regular guy who isn’t that political, but supports the ideas that helped get Trump elected. Gouran’s own compassion and honorability make the character understandable and sympathetic.
Mitchell has a difficult role. She presents herself beautifully at the start as an academic who really wants to understand the story. She has to tease out the information for us to understand what Schenkkan wants us to see, but some of her dialogue does not work that well, especially toward the end.
Rick’s actions that put him in prison are really the heart of what Gloria wants to know, but her reactions, which should have been based on knowing the history of what Rick did, are too surprised and too shallow to be appropriate from an academic who seeks a deeper understanding. In this way, Schenkkan’s haste betrays us a bit, since what he wants is to shock us instead of allowing Gloria to pursue her real mission.
Director Desdemona Chiang helps build the tension and manage a difficult two-people-stuck-in-a-room staging. Lighting is another crucial element which Jessica Trundy manages with subtlety. While it must be bright prison-visiting lighting, it does not dehumanize the players.
The play helps us walk the steps that reasonable people might walk while wading deeper into objectively unreasonable actions toward fellow humans.
For more information, go to www.azotheatre.org or https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3133104 or call 800-838-3006.
Admission for this production is “pay what you wish” at the end of the show. Reservations are requested.