Building the Wall
Reviewed by Neal Weaver
Extended through June 18
Robert Schenkkan’s play, set in 2019, is a dystopian vision of what life in Trump-land might be like two years hence.
In a prison meeting room, a black woman, Gloria (Judith Moreland) is interviewing Rick (Bo Foxworth), a white prisoner. She offers him a chance to tell his side of the story. But the two are wary of each other. At first, he refuses to cooperate with her, but when she prepares to leave, he relents.
It appears that he, a Trump true-believer, has been convicted of some horrendous crime, which has left him bitter and perhaps paranoid. It takes a while for us to learn the nature of his crime. Slowly it emerges that he was a guy who worked in law enforcement when an unexplained terrorist attack in New York City (which may have been contrived, like the German Reichstag Fire, to foment terror and mass hysteria) stokes the demand for immediate action. And Rick is recruited to run a segment of the program to deport the 16 million undocumented, i.e., illegal immigrants.
But Murphy’s Law applies: Anything that can go wrong will. The sheer scope of the undertaking makes it a logistical nightmare. Processing the potential deportees quickly enough proves impossible, and the holding centers become more and more overcrowded. Some countries refuse to accept the deportees. When the camps become impossibly overpopulated, it’s decided to use sports stadiums as temporary holding pens (as has happened in various totalitarian nations). But the crowding and inadequate sanitary facilities lead to an outbreak of disease, including cholera. Huge numbers of deaths force the authorities to institute mass burials.
Rick is appalled by the situation, and attempts to ameliorate it, but he’s denied more and better facilities, and is held responsible for conditions he can’t control. He wants to escape but is overruled by superiors who want only to preserve appearances. He’s told that if he quits, they’ll make him the scapegoat who takes the blame.
By slow degrees, the deportation program begins to resemble the Nazi’s final solution. A young Latino detainee manages to borrow a cellphone to record the atrocities, and posts them online. They immediately go viral, and a major scandal erupts, provoking a frantic government cover-up. Rick is presented as the villain of the piece, indicted, and condemned.
Clearly Schenkkan means well, and his heart is in the right place. He wants to point out the dangers of demagoguery, racial hatred, disregard of legal safeguards and simplistic solutions. And he intends his play to be a call for action. But though one sympathizes, we can’t quite believe the story. It all happens too quickly and neatly, without the chaotic give and take of partisan politics. No account is taken of the many individuals and organizations opposing Trump’s policies, or the overall complexities of political life. (If things got that far out of hand, and the government was intent on squelching the story, would an independent scholar/journalist like Gloria be allowed to interview Rick?)
Schenkkan executes his tale skillfully, Michael Michetti has cast and directed it well, and the two actors perform superbly. It’s scarcely their fault if the play fails to convince, and preaches to the choir.
The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Avenue, Los Angeles. Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; Mon., 8 p.m.; Extended through June 18. (323) 663-1525 or www.FountainTheatre.com. Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.