- - Monday, April 24, 2017

With President Trump’s first 100 days in the books, a provocative new play about Mr. Trump’s immigration policies is opening less than 2 miles from the White House. Referring to Mr. Trump’s campaign pledge to construct a “big, beautiful wall” to stop undocumented migrants illegally crossing from Mexico into the U.S., “Building the Wall” — produced as part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere by Forum Theatre and opening Thursday at Arena Stage —dramatizes a dystopian vision of Mr. Trump’s border policies.

In the play’s version of the near-future, millions of rounded-up, undocumented immigrants are confined to detention centers, where they face a “final solution to the alien question,” with thousands gassed and their bodies burned. The one-act opens inside a maximum-security prison’s visiting room, where Gloria (Tracey Conyer Lee), an African-American female historian, interviews Rick (Eric Messner), a Caucasian male inmate, veteran and former security guard, now incarcerated.

“Building the Wall” was written by by Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Schenkkan. His play “All the Way,” about President Lyndon B. Johnson’s fight to pass 1965’s Voting Rights Act, was adapted as a 2016 TV movie, starring Bryan Cranston, who won the best actor Tony for the Broadway show and an Emmy nod for the HBO TV movie.

Mr. Schenkkan said he wrote “Building the Wall” in “a white heat” immediately following Mr. Trump’s shocking November election.

“Although I expected a different outcome, I already felt we’d crossed a line in this country and that we’d broken something,” Mr. Schenkkan told The Washington Times via phone from New York. “Nothing since then has changed my mind; my worst fears have been confirmed.”



Mr. Schenkkan, who also wrote the Mel Gibson-directed film “Hacksaw Ridge,” wanted the play to be produced as far and as widely as possible. And sooner rather than later.

“I think that we are in the middle of an extraordinary political crisis,” he said. “I don’t see it as a conflict between Democrats and Republicans, or even between conservatives and liberals. I see a concerted attack on fundamental American values — on separation of powers, an independent judiciary, freedom of the press, free speech.”

“Building the Wall” debuted at Los Angeles’ Fountain Theatre March 18, and has also had a run in Denver. The play will soon expand to New York, Miami, Austin, Texas; Santa Fe, New Mexico; and even Vienna, Austria.

However, the version District audiences see will not be precisely identical to earlier iterations of the show. Mr. Schenkkan continues to add to the play as news from the White House rolls in.

“I continue to revise the script with each production,” Mr. Schenkkan said.

Mr. Schenkkan likens his artistic ambitions to the progressive theater crusades of the past, such as the Depression-era Proletarian Theater.

“[The play] is certainly one in a long, honorable heritage of arts speaking in the moment to political, social situations,” Mr. Schenkkan said of his work, adding that “Building the Wall” touches on ancient tension inherent within all democracies between individuals and the collective power of the nation.

“The play is, above all, an appeal to individuals not to cede their moral authority to the state,” he said. “Sophocles wrote about this 2,000 years ago in ‘Antigone,’ and we’re feeling this very much today.”

Mr. Schenkkan is no stranger to controversy: His 2002 screenplay adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel “The Quiet American” ran into headwinds because it criticized U.S. foreign policy in Vietnam, and debuted shortly after 9/11, when feelings of patriotism were running especially high.

“There was considerable reluctance on the part of the studio” to release “The Quiet American,” Mr. Schenkkan said, but star Michael Caine pushed for the film to get into theaters.

“Michael was very brave in his insistence that the film be given a chance, and I think it’s largely because of his insistence it was” eventually released, Mr. Schenkkan said. (Mr. Caine earned a best actor Oscar nomination for the film.)

Mr. Schenkkan’s career courted strife yet again last year, when he agreed to pen the screenplay for Mr. Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge.” Mr. Gibson became infamous for his drunken, epithet-laced rants recorded by his ex-girlfriend a decade ago, with many in Hollywood vowing never to work with him again.

“My personal experience with Mel was without issue. Politics was never our focus,” Mr. Schenkkan said of working with the “Mad Max” and “Lethal Weapon” actor, who also was Oscar-nominated for directing “Hacksaw Ridge.” “He was very gracious and professional and did a very good job.

“Mel [has been] sober for several years, and there’s an acknowledgement on his part of some unfortunate things he’s done and said,” Mr. Schenkkan said. “All of us would like to be forgiven for our sins and given a second chance; I don’t see why he should be treated differently.”

Mr. Schenkkan’s second LBJ play, “The Great Society,” will debut on Broadway in November.

“Building the Wall” is at Arena Stage April 27 to May 7, and then moves to Forum Theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland, May 18-27. For tickets, visit Forum-theatre.org.

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