The great di­vide

Build­ing the Wall

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - Jen­nifer Levin The New Mex­i­can

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


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.”

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