A terrorist attack in Times Square leads to the president declaring martial law. A massive round up of immigrants begins. The idea is to deport millions back to their home countries. Private prisons take them in until that can be done. The results are disastrous.
Robert Schenkkan imagined just such a scenario in his new play “Building the Wall,” which Borderlands Theater opens in previews Sept. 27.
The Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning playwright generally takes his time writing his works.
But this was banged out in a week, shortly before the 2016 election.
“Even in October I thought we had crossed the line,” says Schenkkan in a phone interview from his New York City home.
“It wasn’t so much the race-baiting of the Republican candidate so much as the torturous ways in which people who should know better tried to explain it away. They normalized what was not normal. That scared and infuriated me. … We’ve seen time and again this kind of willingness to ignore in order to take advantage of a political situation, to advance one’s interest.”
As he began to formulate the play, he recalled a book he had read years ago, Gitta Sereny’s “Into That Darkness,” written about Franz Stangl, the commandant of the Treblinka and Sobibor extermination camps. He saw himself as a harmless bureaucrat who was just doing his job at the death camps.
Sereny’s nonfiction book “is an attempt to understand the bleakest of the Nazi horrors by focusing on one ordinary man, who, for a brief moment, found himself with unlimited power,” Schenkkan wrote in the introduction to the script.
“Building the Wall” is a dystopian drama set in 2019. Gloria, a historian, is interviewing Rick, who is in prison awaiting sentencing after being found guilty of committing atrocities at the corporate-owned private prison he ran.
The playwright paints a terrifying picture of what can happen when voices are silenced or apathetic.
The current atmosphere in this country makes him think what happens in the play could become reality.
Just since Donald Trump’s election, he says, “We went from a group of alt-right neonazis in private ballrooms saluting Trump to actual Nazis marching down the streets of a major American city. … I was envisioning where things can lead to if people don’t pay attention.”
It was barely finished when a long-time friend, Stephen Sachs, read it. Sachs is co-artistic director of the Los Angeles’ Fountain Theatre. The company is part of the National New Play Network and Sachs quickly rounded up four other theaters to mount the piece for what is called a “rolling world premiere.” Borderlands, a founding member of the network, which champions new works, quickly signed on.
“It’s totally in our wheelhouse,” says Marc Pinate, Borderlands’ artistic director and director of this play.
“We certainly have a solid reputation for doing plays about social issues, the times and of a political nature. This is no exception. It was a pretty easy decision to do it.”
Despite the title, this is not about Trump’s wall along the U.S.-Mexican border. The wall being built is the one that allows us to turn our backs on wrongs in the world.
“While the plot concerns immigration and policy and private prisons, the core is about the importance of the individual not yielding their moral authority to the state,” says Schenkkan.
Theater has the power to move and inspire people to do that, the playwright adds. “Good theater provokes introspection, awareness and dialogue. And perhaps out of that comes action. When totalitarian governments take over, one of the first groups that are purged are the artists because they can speak in a way that is meaningful and they can arouse people out of stupor and denial into action.”