It’s in the air – an urgency to use theatre to get people into the conversation about what many see as our national crisis: the Trump presidency. Now Forum Theatre gets into the act presenting a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere of Building the Wall.
I’m not sure it’s even a play. But I’m not sure that matters. The work and the conversations that it can ignite matter terribly.
Written “in the heat” following last November’s election, it was jumped on in February as a “must –do” by Artistic Director Michael Dove and the team at Forum who saw the need to be responsive to the chaotic feelings that have erupted. Others clearly agree because the opening on Sunday night was filled with many of the most serious theatre makers and goers of the Greater Washington area. This is the last weekend for the play at Arena Stage in their new works space, the intimate Kogod Cradle. It will then move to Forum’s Silver Spring location and closes May 27.
I’ve said this before that you can’t see a show in Washington these days – even tried and true musicals – without it being in some penetrating way political. But this overt taking on of the “difficult conversation” feels raw and necessary.
So many current productions in Washington feel – as a whole – in dialogue with each other. Not one month ago Mosaic Theater Company opened A Human Being Died Last Night. There, too, the set was a table and two chairs, and the narrative that followed featured an African-American woman with a tape recorder taping a White male prisoner who had been sentenced for “crimes against humanity.” Recently Washington National Opera gave us Dead Man Walking, and, because of the timing, it became a referendum on our renewed troubling debate about the death penalty. Curiously, it too was a dramatic work stitched together based on a series of meetings in prison with a death row inmate – seen through the eyes of the nun who visited him and worked to get inside his story. These productions and the actors who perform in them seem to demonstrate hearts beating with the same fervency.
Theaters are embracing this trend head on. My company, Alliance for New Music-Theatre, soon opens Protest, Vaclav Havel’s absurd and chilling work about the individual’s responsibility to stand up against governmental tyranny. In the fall, Howard Shalwitz of Woolly Mammoth returns to the stage taking on the lead role in Max Frisch’s The Arsonists, a work examining individual responsibility in the face of populist nationalism. In America, these plays might not have been dusted off a few years ago, but they compel us to look at them again in a world where we are treated to alternate facts on a daily basis and the world and the values that so many of us thought in place and moving in the right direction have seemingly been dislodged or are threatening to be swept away altogether.
Still, Dove writes about Building the Wall, “the energy of a piece that directly addresses a topic still in the morning’s headlines is unlike anything else.” There is indeed something both familiar and disorienting about the narrative of Schenkkan’s play.
The story unfolds like a long piece of exposition, an extended segment of talking heads. Trump has been elected. The people who voted for him are feeling things will change. They’ve been heard. They will get work and other opportunities for which they feel they’ve been overlooked. The audience connects the dots of recent history, including a focus on what to do about immigrants and the proposed solution of building a wall. Suddenly what we in the audience think we are following has flipped into speculative fiction. The reality of our incarcerating illegal immigrants in for-profit prisons suddenly becomes the proposition for a “what if” the country actually does round up all the illegals and then what?
I will not spoil the show by telling of this imagined future, but let’s just say something goes terribly, chillingly wrong.
I think Schenkkan has wrought that important service so many have cried for in the last few months – bringing us into listening to “the other side.” By this of course I think most people in the theatre opening night and most people in Washington’s so-called “bubble” are somewhat in shock and still trying to understand what or rather who brought the phenomenon of Trump into the White House.
Eric Messner as Rick has the task of unveiling the face behind “the other side.” He has a massive amount of lines to share explaining how he came to be imprisoned. Early on in the play, some of it feels like pop psychology: an abusive alcoholic father, shut out from his career choice, lack of recognition. As Rick, he insists he is not prejudiced. He also says the expected line of wanting to provide security for his family monetarily and a safe society.
Where his performance and the work gets most interesting is how he deals with the double vision Rick has vis à vis supporting Trump. Rick doesn’t believe most of what Trump says on the campaign trail. The point is, according to Rick, that Trump says things that are jarring and the freedom to be able to say them makes Trump’s case compelling. One of the most powerful moments in the evening is Rick’s revelation or at least retelling of when he understands that Trump never meant to build a wall. That was ridiculous. A wall meant something totally – and it turns out terrifyingly – different.
Tracey Conyer Lee has the less satisfying role of playing Gloria, the interviewer. Unlike the Sister Helen Prejean role in Dead Man Walking or even the character of Gobodo-Madikizela in A Human Being Died that Night, Gloria doesn’t really develop as a character or traverse any personal journey. In the taping of Rick’s extended confession, Gloria is relegated to listening and occasionally indicating to the audience a kind of shocked (liberal) reaction of disbelief. Only occasionally is she given the opportunity to empathize with the man’s feelings.
Building the Wall
As I wrote, I am not sure it is a drama. A drama sets up a conflict in real time of the relationships on stage. Instead, I feel this is a kind of storytelling, powerful in moments, but storytelling nonetheless. As such, it might have been even more compelling as a one-man show. Then we might have benefitted from being in relationship with the character and see the truth in his eyes.
As it is, Dove directs the play with almost no movement and the actors in profile facing one another throughout so the audience misses some of the nuanced fabric of relationship.
Still, I think it is a work that challenges and speaks to both our confounded states and our fears about the repercussions from this election and its referendum on what it means to be an American. The project provides a vital catalyst for discussion and challenges us to find some way to get together and find common ground to vouchsafe our society.
For this and the courage to put up something so raw and untried, Forum Theatre has done a commendable job.
Multiple productions of Building the Wall are opening around the country now. A production, directed by Ari Edelson will play a limited engagement in New York at New World Stages.
Details and tickets
Building the Wall. Written by Robert Schenkkan. Directed by Michael Dove. Performed by Tracey Conyer Lee and Eric Messner. Set design by Patrick Lord. Lighting design by Sarah Tundermann. Costume design by Heather Lockard. Sound design by Thomas Sowers. Stage managed by Jenny Rubin. Produced by Forum Theatre. Reviewed by Marshall Bradshaw.