“It’s dangerous to assign their moral responsibility to the state,” says Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan in an interview about his new, Trump-inspired script, “Building the Wall.”
Robert Schenkkan has won the shiniest awards a living playwright can hope for.
His scripts tend to be long-simmering, meticulously researched projects (“The Kentucky Cycle” won a Pulitzer; “All the Way,” about the backroom politics behind the 1964 Civil Rights Act, won a Tony), but “Building the Wall” was a fast gut shot.
Schenkkan said he wrote the first draft in a weeklong, “white-hot fury” in the final days before Donald Trump was elected president of the United States — and then told his agents he wanted the play produced as widely as possible, from big theaters to small theaters to church basements.
‘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).
“Wall” has been produced from Arizona to Vienna and is playing in Seattle at 12th Ave Arts. (Read our review of the production.) The story, set in 2019, is structurally simple: a black professor interviews a white prison guard, now on trial for horrendous events that happened on his watch at an overcrowded, for-profit, cholera-racked immigrant-detention center.
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But the play quickly turns into a rhetorical duet between the characters about immigration, patriotism, race and what happens when otherwise decent people abdicate their moral judgment to their bosses’ profit margins.
“Wall,” Schenkkan said in an interview with The Seattle Times, “is a plea for people to speak up.
An edited version of the interview follows:
Q: What were you thinking when you wrote “Building the Wall” in that moment of “white-hot fury”?
A: I’m still thinking, as many people did, “the election will have a different outcome.” But I’m already furious and deeply concerned about what is happening in this country. I was thinking: “We have already crossed a line and the damage has been done.”
The play was a response to the fact that people weren’t more outraged. The damage wasn’t just the racist and fearmongering rhetoric of the candidate. It was the way reasonable people in leadership positions — journalists, elected officials — were so quick to try to explain this away or normalize this. That, to me, was the red flag.
Q: You wrote Rick (the prison-guard-turned-prisoner in “Wall”) as a Trump supporter.
A: Rick is a decent person in a complicated situation that gets more and more complicated, and he has to make choices. But he never says: “No!” He never says: “Stop!” And when people don’t say “stop,” bad things happen.
Q: How has the Trump administration lived up to your expectations — or fears — when you were writing “Wall”?
A: In some ways, it’s been even worse than I anticipated. The fact that his leader of the Environmental Protection Agency (Scott Pruitt) doesn’t publish logs of who he has meetings with, the connections between the Trump administration and the Russian government now coming to light — I had no idea of that. It’s shocking in the extreme. It’s treason, basically.
Q: You’re a scholar of American history, your plays are based on American history — does the current situation seem that extreme?
A: First off, I’m a student, not a scholar. But yes, I think that I and everybody else has been shocked in the way in which this administration has steamrolled 200 years of tradition, propriety, rules. I think it will result in a constitutional crisis.
Look, we’ve been in serious places before. We fought a Civil War, for Chrissakes. The attempt by [Franklin]) Roosevelt to pack the Supreme Court, the incarceration of Japanese Americans, [Richard] Nixon’s attempt to sabotage the Paris peace talks … his spying on his political enemies — we’ve been through serious (expletive) before and survived.
But this feels different. I am worried in a way more than I ever have — in part, because it feels like the Republican Party is willing, on its top level of leadership, to accept this so long as they can enact their legislative agenda. This is an acceptable trade for them. This wasn’t always the case. When Nixon [resigned], his Republican critics were as excoriating as his Democratic critics because people did not see it as a partisan issue. They saw it as a national issue — and this is very different from what we see now.
Q: Theatergoers, especially in Seattle, are probably left-leaning. Is it fair to say that “Building the Wall” will just preach to the choir?
A: I don’t have any problem speaking to those people about what’s happening. They, and I include myself in that group, are part of the problem. They need to be part of the solution.
We are neither (a) blameless, nor (b) helpless to change the situation. It’s important to make people think that it’s dangerous to assign their moral responsibility to the state and not take personal responsibility. The resurgence of this nationalist, nativist, fascist impulse — in moments of economic and national-emotional turmoil, it always resurfaces and capitalizes on fear.
It’s Le Pen in France, it’s Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Five Star in Italy, the Freedom Party in Austria. The authoritarian impulse is very old. There’s no mystery to it. You try to badger and belittle the press — “sit down and shut up” were the words I believe were used — you diminish and dismiss the judicial process, scapegoat minorities and constantly emphasize “the threat.” And the only solution is “the leader.”
Trump isn’t inventing anything new.