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

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.”

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