Review: ‘Building the Wall’ at Forum Theatre

The dystopia delineated in Building the Wall is predicted by the playwright, Robert Schenkkan, to happen in America very soon.  By the time the play is set, in the year 2019, the two characters are already looking back at it, a fait accompli, the barbaric consequence of an anti-immigrant animus fueled by a president who is competent only at fanning hate. And there is a big problem with the play: It is horrifyingly plausible.

Schenkkan wrote Building the Wall right after the November election; in February Forum Theatre chose to fast-track it to production (along with other theaters, as a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere). As Forum Artistic Director Michael Dove told the audience at last night’s opening in Arena’s Kogod, he “wanted it to be in the national conversation immediately, in downtown DC, near the White House.”

Tracey Conyer Lee (Gloria) and Eric Messner (Rick) in Building the Wall. Photograph by Teresa Castracane Photography.

The place is a prison meeting room, a table and two chairs. Lighting Designer Sarah Tundermann frames these close quarters with florescent tubes on the floor at the corners. Sound Designer Thomas Sowers adds an unsettling low undertone.  Set Designer Patrick Lord erects a gridwork rear-projection screen on which appear ominous news images in sepia. One is headlined “DEPORTATION TO BEGIN.”

A historian, Gloria, has come to interview a prisoner, Rick, who has been convicted for doing the job he was hired to do. He worked as a supervisor for a private corporation that had a federal contract to detain and dispatch tens of thousands of people targeted by Trump.  The corporation was paid by the government per dead body disposed of.

Erica Chamblee as Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela and Chris Genebach as Eugene de Kock in A Human Being Died That Night at Mosaic Theater Company of DC. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The situation bears similarity to the interviewer-prisoner dynamic dramatized in Nicholas Wright’s A Human Being Died That Night, just closed at Mosaic Theater Company. A black woman and a white man sit at opposite ends of a table. She wears tasteful business attire; he wears an orange jumpsuit. But whereas A Human Being Died That Night takes place in a penitentiary in South Africa and pertains to actual past killings of black people that happened under apartheid, Building the Wall takes place in a prison in El Paso, Texas, and pertains to killings of nonwhite people that could happen under Trump but have not yet.

It is a distinction without a difference.

“I’m not racist,” Rick assures Gloria near the beginning, unconvincingly. “Why can’t I be proud to be white?” he asks later. Every country has a right to defend its borders, he declares rhetorically, as if this simplistic principium exonerates him.

What makes Building the Wall not only a terrifying forewarning but also a spellbinding character study is the way Schenkkan peels back Rick’s posturing so we  see what makes him tick. This the playwright does by tracking what attracted Rick to Trump.

Rick was not particularly political when he happened into a rally, but the experience of watching Trump on the stump, he tells Gloria, was “an electrical thrill.” The candidate’s unabashed political incorrectness was for Rick cathartic. It said to Rick “you could do something you weren’t supposed to do” and “you didn’t feel shame.” The exhilaration Rick felt in this throng was “like a pro wrestler thing.”

As Rick explains to Gloria, “People were voting to get their country back.” Meanwhile Rick’s personal psychological profile has made plain how that nationalism equated with exculpation for being white.

Building the Wall Playwright Robert Schenkkan.

The incendiary combination of America First-ism and white identity politics erupts in Schenkkan’s script in an incident in Times Square that prompts Trump to declare martial law and start rounding up immigrants. Rick is put in charge of a football stadium turned mega holding pen. But countries refuse to repatriate the people being detained, so the U.S. is stuck with masses of people in unsanitary conditions coming down with cholera. Rick is overwhelmed. There are bodies piling up. Portable mortuaries are called in. It’s “millions of people,” Rick says, “a cluster fuck of massive proportions.”

The character of the interviewer Gloria is less fleshed out, although we learn of the loss of her beloved brother, who was blown to bits by an IED in Iraq. The detail is telling: Presidential megalomania has led to carnage before.

Dove’s direction and the performances by Tracey Conyer Lee as Gloria and Eric Messner as Rick serve the storytelling superbly. And it is the playwright’s accumulating mental picture of an unthinkable future that is the force field of the play, the reason it is necessary to be seen.

Theater can make the incredible credible, the unbelievable believable, the inconceivable conceivable. That is the profound power of this art.  How better to deploy that power now than to foresee where our nation is headed unless we #resist?

The play’s ending is jaw-dropping. Don’t miss it.

Running Time: About 85 minutes with no intermission.

Building the Wall plays through May 7, 2017, at Forum Theatre, performing at The Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theatre – 1101 6th Street, SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (301) 588-8270, or purchase them online.

Building the Wall continues  May 18 through 27, 2017, at Forum Theatre, performing at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre – 8641 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, call (301) 588-8270, or purchase them online.


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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.


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