Monday, May 1, 2017

Douglas Messerli | "A Bigger Wall Than Ever Imagined" (on Robert Schenkkan's Building the Wall)

a bigger wall than ever imagined
by Douglas Messerli

Robert Schenkkan Building the Wall / Los Angeles, Fountain Theatre / the performance I saw was on April 30, 2017

Robert Schenkkan’s new play, Building the Wall, is a fictional dystopian work that has already happened and a dystopian warning of what might very easily happen in our lifetime, particularly under the presidency of Donald Trump.

     The two characters of Schenkkan’s play, caught for 90 minutes in a prison meeting room, hash out the details after the fact of a major recent terrorist attack in New York, after which the Trump administration has ordered a rounding up of all illegal (and evidently many legal) immigrants, sending them en masse to an El Paso prison whose head of security, Rick (Bo Foxworth) is a highly unqualified Trump supporter. 
    He is, by his own recounting, a man who does not hate (he claims both black and Muslim friends) and has voted Democrat in other elections, but having attended a Trump rally has been made to feel—as so many Trump voters evidently felt—that the candidate was truly speaking up for and directly to them, poor, working whites who had lost their sense of self-worth in a society that seemed shun them.
     The prison is soon overwhelmed, and when cholera begins to break out, even the most simple of systems collapse, as guards (and even those imprisoned) sell and barter (with sex) for the dwindling supply of drugs and foodstuffs. 
      And still the immigrants continue to arrive by the busload. Rick begs for help from higher-ups, but receives only assurances that he should continue. Finally, unable to house all the “prisoners,” he takes over a nearby football stadium, calling up the terrible slaughter houses of South American dictators. But even there, sanitation begins to become a problem (the same thing we saw during  Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans), and rebellions occur daily. 
      Finally consulting with the head of the company for which he works and two others who appear to be FBI or Pentagon representatives, they insist that he take care of the issue, arranging for a larger nearby facility to be turned into a kind a slaughtering house not very different from the Nazi camp killing chambers of the Holocaust. 
     Even before he arrives to check out the facility, steel doors have been constructed, windows removed, lines painted to facilitate prisoner movements, and large water conduits created to wash down the place after the prisoners, who have been told that they are being processed for extradition, have been exterminated.
      Asked by his questioner, Gloria (Judith Moreland), why he didn’t simply quite the job which by that time Rick was finding unbearable, like the Nazi apologizers after World War II he makes plausible excuses: his beloved wife was suffering from pre-natal illness and might have lost their baby, besides they would simply have hired another like him. Similar to so many of the Nazi underlings, he simply attempts to avert his gaze, seldom returning to the killing house “except when there was trouble.” 
      Several critics, including the Los Angeles Times’ Charles McNulty, have compared Rick’s behavior to that of Eichmann, whose actions Hannah Arendt had characterized as being part of the “banality of evil.” But, fortunately, the playwright does not actually make that connection. Like Eichmann, Rick did know what he’s doing, and was, in many ways, a true demon who justified his own actions just as Trump (and others such as Putin) deliberately lying, in the belief that the more they repeated it, the truer their lies became. 
     Rick is not so banal, and more intelligent that even Eichmann, in his play-acting, pretended to be. And, while it is clear Rick, like those before him, has been served up as a kind of scapegoat by the government and other agencies, he is quite aware of his guilt; after he finally tells his wife, Stacy, what he has done, she no longer will look him in the face. 
     Schenkkan does not simply blame the bureaucracy or even the authoritarian rulers, but the everyday men and women they need to carry out their acts, namely each and every one of us. Unlike Arendt’s rather simplistic summarization of how such things happen, the playwright puts the focus on the doers, not just the instigators, on the Eichmanns, not simply the Hitlers amongst us. Like Eichmann, Rick can give a specific approximation of the deaths, somewhere between 20,000-40,000.
     Behind the actors, set designer Se Oh has placed a large mirror that reflects back most the audiences’ faces at all times while they watch this work, reminding us, as he himself suggests in a short program statement: “To those who say that could never happen here in this country, I reply, maybe so, but that of course will depend entirely on what you do.” In short, it is the Ricks of the world who are as central to this potential evil as are the Trumps.
     Certainly, there are significant problems with Schenkkan’s play. For one, it is simply a too simple conceit. There are dozens of other more pernicious ways of destroying people than simply killing them. The walls we build not only at our country’s borders but within it, as Laila Lalami intelligently noted in this very morning’s The New York Times Magazine (“Over the Edge”), can be manipulated to ostracize any “other” we might imagine, allowing us to destroy their lives. In this way, we can slowly and sometimes not so slowly “kill off” the poor, the disadvantaged, the uneducated, and numerous notions of “the other” just as quickly as this play describes those born in other countries who have sought solace in our world have been. 
     Personally, I would like to see someone (a playwright in the tradition of Mac Wellman perhaps) explore how the misuse of language itself (an obvious sin of Trump and his many demagogues) can so convert the truth that ultimately it kills. When no one finally can believe in any truth, the world itself turns in a dark mystery than makes everyone fear for their lives. 
      Schenkkan’s work, moreover, is not always up to its own task. Although pretending to be a dialogue, which might be the most appropriate way to get to the heart of things, the highly intelligent black woman psychologist, sociologist, and reporter who interviews Rick serves primarily as a spur to Rick’s memory rather than elucidating and revealing new aspects and meanings of the horrible events that have occurred. Only once and a while, does she add an important comparison to past history; but we know she could tell us so much more that we miss her more authoritative presence. 
      Rick, himself, however makes what is perhaps the most important realization that Schenkkan’s play offers: in order to build a wall you don’t necessarily need bricks, mortar, wood, metal, or whatever else border walls are made of. The murder of all of these poor individuals alone made it certain that no one of sound mind might wish to enter our country. The wall these events made is a permanent one that stands higher than even Trump’s glib visions of a towering monument of isolation.
      If Building the Wall is not a great play, it is certainly a memorable one that encourages its audiences to truly think and imagine. And I admire Los Angeles’ Fountain Theatre for presenting it before it moves on to other cities such as Denver, Washington, D.C., Tucson, Miami, and New York. The work has found such popularity here, that its run was extended.        

Los Angeles, May 1, 2017

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