“Building the Wall,” which Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan wrote in a “white-hot fury” before Trump’s election, wrestles with fear, authoritarianism and the bad things that can happen in an immigrant-detention center when nobody’s watching.
A room. A table. One black woman, one white man. Maybe a couple of chairs.
It doesn’t take much to stage “Building the Wall,” Robert Schenkkan’s interrogation-room showdown between a history professor (Shermona Mitchell) and a former prison guard (Tim Gouran), now wearing an orange jumpsuit of his own.
But it helps to have an audience stuffed with a steady diet of today’s headlines: President Donald Trump, borders, immigration, terrorism, national security, administrative chaos, high-level cover-ups.
‘Building the Wall’
Through Dec. 23. Azeotrope at 12th Ave Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle; by donation, reservations strongly suggested (800-838-3006 or brownpapertickets.com).
In fact, the audience’s reactions became part of the performance. Some gasped, some smiled grimly and one young woman wept, using the right-hand sleeve of her cardigan sweater to wipe away tears while a friend offered a reassuring hand.
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But “Wall” is no study in nuance, and the plot is simple.
The prison-guard-turned-prisoner is on the hook for overseeing an overcrowded, underfunded, for-profit, cholera-racked immigrant-detention center where things go horribly wrong. Medicine is in short supply; some guards are corrupt; corporate goons and federal functionaries turn up the pressure to make the problem — that is, sick immigrants — “go away.” (Spoiler alert: If your mind races toward the worst possible version of officials trying to make inconvenient, incarcerated bodies “go away,” especially if they have access to an unused industrial blast furnace, you’re on the right track.)
“Nobody knew what to do,” Gouran says with hunched-forward shoulders and wary, narrowed eyes. “It’s not something you get trained for.” Mitchell, on her side of the table, stiffens (in a performance that already feels a little stiffly mannered, like she’s rushing through the lines) and tries to get clinical: “Why didn’t you just quit and fight them in court if you had to?”
Gouran rounds on her, asking why historians always have the answers after the fact. “Why did Napoleon turn left instead of right?” he snarls. “Probably because he was in the middle of an (expletive) battle crapping his pants with shells going off all around him and people dying horribly!”
And this is the heart of “Wall”: a Trump-supporting prison guard who becomes the fall guy for Trump-administration chaos, wondering aloud about what a person is supposed to do when circumstances demand actions that — in the eyes of history — will look monstrous.
It’s an old story, and nothing about “Wall” is exceptional. The script is a strong argument written in Socratic-style dialogue; the performances are fine and don’t demand — or deliver — any subtlety.
Which is sufficient. Not great, just sufficient. “Wall” is a play written in the here-and-now for the here-and-now.
Schenkkan has won marquee awards for his meticulously researched plays about major moments in U.S. history: a Pulitzer for his “Kentucky Cycle,” a Tony for his “All the Way.”
But “Wall” is a different kind of play. Schenkkan says the first draft was written in a “white-hot fury” in the closing days of October 2016, just before Donald Trump was elected president. “Wall,” he says, is a cautionary tale: “How bad does it have to get for people to stand up and say, ‘This is wrong’?”
Which reopens the question: Would “Wall” be nearly as effective written in a different time, with a different leader’s name?
As long as there are innocents in the world, my bets are on yes — writers, from Plato to Hannah Arendt, have wrestled with the banality of evil and how functionaries become accessories to murder. Even when the answers seem obvious, there will always be a new generation of young people to consider the question for the first time, wiping away tears with the sleeves of their cardigan sweaters.