Building the Wall

by Brooke Pierce

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday May 23, 2017

Tamara Tunie and James Badge Dale
Tamara Tunie and James Badge Dale  

Playwright Robert Schenkkan is probably best known by New York theatergoers for his Tony-winning play "All the Way," which hit Broadway in 2014 in a production starring Bryan Cranston. That drama, which later was made into an HBO movie, memorably captured the historic passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

But it seems that recent current events have inspired Schenkkan to write about another historic moment in time, one that he imagines could occur in the very near future if we continue on our present course.

"Building the Wall," a 90-minute two-person drama now playing at New World Stages, is set in late 2019 -- and it appears that a lot has happened between now and then. How we find out is through an interview between a prisoner, Rick (James Badge Dale), and a college professor, Gloria (Tamara Tunie), who wants to uncover the truths that weren't revealed at his trial. She's partly hoping to get a juicy book deal, but more than that she wants to understand how he ended up in his orange jumpsuit, condemned to die.

What we learn fairly early on is that Rick was in law enforcement and that his crime had something to do with Trump and the anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies that we are all so familiar with today. Seeing that Gloria is black, he takes pains to assure her that he's not prejudiced and that his actions weren't driven by hatred for any particular group. While that seems unlikely when he waxes on about the empowerment he felt surrounded by a sea of white Christians at a Trump rally, by the end of the play it becomes -- chillingly -- easier to believe that it could have been more cowardice, rather than hate, that drove him.

The mood in the room, which has a one-way window that someone is surely monitoring from the other side, is never terribly tense. Rick and Gloria banter about draft-dodging presidents, Sandra Bland, conspiracy theorism, and more. Occasionally, the arguments sound like a list of talking points straight out of a Facebook comment war, whether it's Rick insisting that we're not a country unless we can protect our borders or Gloria pointing out how virtually none of recent terror attacks on American soil have been committed by undocumented immigrants. Some of those moments almost sound too scripted, until you consider that maybe we really are starting to communicate like that in our hyper-polarized political environment.

In any case, the playwright isn't really using these points to be persuasive. His real argument comes as Gloria gradually draws Rick's story out of him. I don't want to spoil it here, but suffice it to say that we learn how someone who appears to be a basically decent man is asked to carry out increasingly reprehensible tasks -- until he becomes a monster.

Schenkkan is illustrating the logical conclusion when certain groups of people are systematically marginalized and dehumanized, and it's unnerving to think how easily it could happen in this country, particularly in the wake of another major terrorist attack. (It was, in fact, just as I was exiting the theater after seeing "Building the Wall" that I heard about the attack in Manchester, England, which is believed to be the work of a suicide bomber.)

Schenkkan was clearly driven by the current administration's attitudes and policies towards Muslims and immigrants to write this play quickly. As such, it feels more like a warning parable than a carefully-crafted drama. But it is engaging, and plays like this can have real value in times like these.

Being performed recently, simultaneously, or very soon in theaters in California, New Mexico, Arizona, Florida, Colorado, Oregon, and in other countries as well, "Building the Wall" has a lesson to teach people of all political stripes about the need for eternal vigilance. In a violent world, we must jealously guard our own humanity.

"Building the Wall" runs through July 9 at New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street, NYC. For information or tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit buildingthewallplay.com.

Brooke Pierce is a freelance writer and playwright in New York City. Her plays have received staged readings at the American Theatre of Actors, the Ensemble Studio Theatre, and Stage One Theater. Brooke is a member of the Drama Desk and the Dramatists Guild.