The great divide
Building the Wall
IN an attempt to shift blame for atrocities committed during the Holocaust, Nazis tried for their crimes after World War II often uttered a common refrain: “I was just following orders.” They meant to absolve themselves of personal responsibility by reducing their role to that of cogs in a machine. A modern version of this theme comes home to roost in Building the Wall ,anew play by Robert Schenkkan that is set in 2019, after an attack on American soil sends the country’s antiimmigration policy into overdrive. The play, which Schenkkan wrote around the time of the 2016 presidential election, premieres at four theaters — in Los Angeles, Denver, Tucson, and Silver Spring, Maryland — throughout the spring and summer. It opened in Santa Fe at the Adobe Rose Theatre on June 15.
Schenkkan received a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1992 for The Kentucky Cycle, and a 2014 Tony for All the Way. He co-wrote the 2016 film Hacksaw Ridge (which won Academy Awards for editing and sound mixing). Usually, a play by someone of Schenkkan’s stature would have its premiere in New York City, but in an effort to get Building the Wall in front of as many audiences as possible, as soon as possible, he told Pasatiempo, “I completely changed my business model. Instead of huddling with my agent and figuring out the play’s best possible trajectory and maximizing potential for royalties, I wanted this play out widely. I don’t care who produces it — big theaters or small, semiprofessional, nonprofessional. If a group wants to do a staged reading instead of a full production, that would be fine, too.”
The Adobe Rose production, directed by Kristin Goodman, stars Danielle Reddick as Gloria, an academic researcher, and Todd Anderson as Rick, a convicted criminal. Gloria has come to a Texas prison to interview Rick for an unspecified writing project. At first, all we know is that Gloria is African American and Rick might be a racist — though he denies this notion straight off the bat. The embedded assumption, certainly, is that they come from different sides of the political aisle. Rick’s misdeeds are revealed to the audience slowly, through an expertly paced backand-forth. In order to maintain the dramatic integrity of the work for audiences, those specifics will not be detailed here, but themes and ideas include race and power, military service, “fake news,” capitalism, the private prison system, and the psychological theory of social identity. Established by Henri Tajfel and John Turner in 1979, social identity posits that a person’s sense of who they are is based on membership in a group — and in order to bolster that group identity and sense of belonging, groups will discriminate against other groups, thus dividing the world into “us” and “them.”
“When I first read it, I read it from Rick’s perspective,” Goodman said. “I saw that this was a person who had socially identified with a group of people — whether in the military or the prison system — and that identification kept building and building. From my directorial perspective, Gloria is the connection to the audience that is asking ‘How do we understand what you’re doing and what you did, how you got here?’ If she can figure it out, then maybe there’s an answer.”
Though Rick understands and feels guilt on some level, Schenkkan said that Rick has “displaced his humanity onto his wife” — who, Rick informs Gloria, is an off-limits topic in the interview. “We all shade the truth that we tell ourselves; we offer excuses and rationales, we explain away,” Schenkkan said. “We always offer the best version of ourselves to ourselves. But his wife can’t look at him now, and that’s the most devastating thing to him. Execute him, don’t execute him — that doesn’t matter. Rick has brought Gloria there in the hopes of finding someone who can tell his story. Not to let him off the hook, but so that it
TO FIND THE HUMANITY IN A CHARACTER LIKE RICK IS ONE OF THE JOYS OF ACTING — NOT TO MAKE THE EASY CHOICES BUT TO GO DEEPER. — ACTOR TODD ANDERSON
will make sense enough that his wife will look at him again. He also understands that that’s not possible. Rick’s not a sadist or a sociopath, but he comes to the recognition that there is a line and he has crossed it, permanently.”
“To find the humanity in a character like Rick is one of the joys of acting — not to make the easy choices but to go deeper, to find the subtler, gentler choices that get people to like him,” Anderson said.
While Building the Wall is a political play, Anderson, Reddick, and Goodman think it does not espouse a specific ideological agenda but instead lays out a story that extrapolates from existing policy and builds a relationship between two characters. Years ago, Anderson played Dick Cheney in a theatrical piece that skewered George W. Bush, who was president at the time. In hindsight he sees that role as an exercise in preaching to the choir instead of creating meaningful dialogue. The conversation Rick has with Gloria exemplifies the sorts of exchanges that, these days, are most likely to take place online — where they quickly get uncivil and devolve into arguments and name-calling. In the confines of a prison visiting area, where emotional outbursts are not allowed, Rick and Gloria each must find ways to pacify the other and hit on common ground in order to keep the dialogue flowing and get what they need out of the visit.
“Once it’s a person in front of you, then it’s a person. And you’re a person,” Reddick said. For insight into how Gloria might relate to Rick, she said she keeps coming back to the situation of a friend of hers whose job puts her in close proximity to men who drive big rigs. “They’re all these old Republican truckers. She’s not — but they like each other. They’re so different, but when they’re in the room together, they like each other. And anyway, when the aliens come,” she added, putting a particularly New Mexican spin on the national political divide, “we’re all going to have to fight them together.” Though communication and understanding are important themes in
Building the Wall, this is not a simple, predictable, or feel-good story of Democrats and Republicans putting their differences aside and learning to get along. “I believe we are in the middle of a political crisis, and there is a real sense of urgency about it, but it is not necessarily, as many people would have us believe, a Democrat-versus-Republican issue,” Schenkkan said. “I think what we are experiencing is an American version of an authoritarian impulse. It’s an attack on fundamental American values. We are all shareholders, stakeholders in this struggle. The play urges the importance of individuals not ceding their moral authority to the state, and the importance of all citizens remaining alert and aware — not turning away from what is happening.”