The presidential campaign of 2016 was not just a defining moment for award-winning playwright and University of Texas graduate Robert Schenkkan. It was a call to action.
Concerned by what he saw as Donald Trump’s divisive talk on immigration — “build the wall” — and his supporters’ chorus of approval, Schenkkan wrote “Building the Wall,” an exploration of race and a bleak warning about anti-immigrant politics. “I was so alarmed, so angry, so anxious,” he said. And that was before the election.
“I wrote this in late October just before the election. I was already sufficiently upset about the incendiary rhetoric of the Republican presidential candidate and already feeling the country had crossed a line,” the Austin-raised Schenkkan told the American-Statesman. “That first draft was written in a fury in a week.”
By comparison, his Tony Award-winning play “All the Way,” about President Lyndon B. Johnson’s struggle to pass civil rights legislation, took more than three years from conception to production, with two years of research.
“Building the Wall” opened in Washington, D.C., April 30 after premiering in Los Angeles, Denver and Portland, Ore. It will come to Austin on Aug. 31 for two weeks.
In what is known as “a rolling world premiere” through the National New Play Network, a consortium of regional theaters, the play is being staged at multiple sites at the same time — many with discussion sessions after the show. And Schenkkan is keeping it current with news developments, updating the play when he thinks it’s appropriate.
Schenkkan attended the Washington opening at Arena Stage, just 2 miles from the White House. It is being produced by the Forum Theatre, which will, after the D.C. run, then showcase “Building the Wall” at its theater in Silver Spring, Md., May 18 to 27.
On May 12, the play opens in New York off-Broadway at New World Stages.
In addition to the stop in Austin (it is set for UT’s Oscar G. Brockett Theatre), the play will be staged in other border states, including in Santa Fe, N.M., and Tucson, Ariz. It is being produced this month in Vienna, Austria.
Schenkkan says that much of the interest about the play is like the visceral response to the immigration executive orders that banned visitors from some majority-Muslim countries and called for a wall on the southern border. “This is the greatest political crisis the republic has faced in this century,” he said. “What we’re witnessing is a coordinated assault on fundamental American rights.
“The wall was such a cornerstone of his campaign, it rolls up a whole lot of issues. It’s an interesting Rorschach test for the country as a whole,” Schenkkan said.
“Building the Wall” is set in a West Texas prison in the fall of 2019, late in Trump’s first term. It is an intense two-person exchange between a former private prison operator awaiting sentencing for a crime — unspecified at first — and an African-American history professor who wants to know what happened and why. It runs for 90 minutes without intermission.
The crime at the center of the play took place at a prison outside of El Paso, and “the wall” is a metaphor for what happens in a crackdown of immigrants in the country illegally — what it does to people and the fabric of the country. And it has had an intense response.
“The play is a very compelling story, a metaphor for personal responsibility and government action with immigration policy,” said Brant Pope, the director of the play in Austin and chairman of UT’s Department of Theatre and Dance. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a play that was more incendiary and more hot at the moment.”
In Los Angeles, where the play first opened at the Fountain Theatre in March, it has been extended twice and sells out every night.
“With the national cry of outrage over what was going on, it was the perfect vehicle,” said Stephen Sachs, the Fountain’s artistic director. “It was very important to me that we speak out as artists.” He describes the speed with which Schenkkan has written and produced the play as “unheard of.” “No play is ever done that fast,” said Sachs.
The theater holds weekly after-play discussions on various subjects with different speakers, such as local immigration activists and attorneys, and gives theatergoers a stamped postcard addressed to the president to write what they want — there’s even a mailbox in the lobby.
No longer ‘business as usual’
At the Forum Theatre outside Washington, Artistic Director Michael Dove scrapped his spring schedule when he saw that “Building the Wall” would be available. “This year has been about immediate connections,” Dove said. “After the election, it was a really hard time — nothing felt relevant or immediate.” And he thinks the public is clamoring for a place to talk. “People do need meeting places, scenes of interaction, and the theater is best suited to do that.”
For Bruce McKenna, co-founder of Santa Fe’s new Adobe Rose Theatre and an old friend of Schenkkan’s, it was serendipity. “We are a border state. The play has additional topicality for New Mexico. We have private prisons. A lot of issues strike home in our community,” he said. “You can’t put ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ on every year.”
Schenkkan, who won a Pulitzer for drama in 1992 for “The Kentucky Cycle,” was nominated this year for an Oscar for the screenplay of “Hacksaw Ridge,” director Mel Gibson’s look at a World War II conscript who would not carry a gun. He has kept a busy schedule, writing screenplays for two upcoming movies: “The Project,” directed by Robert Redford, which is based on Jennet Conant’s book about the atomic bomb, “109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos”; and “Fall of Saigon,” being directed by Peter Berg, who directed the iconic movie about Texas high school football, “Friday Night Lights.”
But Schenkkan is most devoted at the moment to “Building the Wall,” hoping that it marks a sea change in how theater responds to current events.
“We no longer live in a world of business as usual and can no longer continue to make theater as we once did,” he said. “This is how I fight for what I believe in.”