It’s the year 2019. President Trump may or may not still be the president. His immigration policies, however, have been carried out — to an extreme. And at least one person is paying the price.
That’s the backdrop of playwright Robert Schenkkan’s latest stage work, “Building the Wall.”
We first meet Rick, played by Bo Foxworth, inside a federal lockup. He’s a military veteran who grew up in Texas. Now he’s a prisoner.
“I don’t have anybody to talk to in here,” he says to the play’s other main protagonist, Gloria, played by Judith Moreland.
“You’re in solitary, yes?” asks Gloria.
“For my own protection,” responds Rick.
Rick used to work in a place just like this: a private prison on the Tex-Mex border housing scores of immigrants rounded up under the Trump administration. He was the warden, and some very bad things happened on his watch.
“There’s nothing really extraordinary about him except the circumstances in which he finds himself and the choices he sadly makes,” says Schenkkan.
Like the character of Rick, Schenkkan also grew up in Texas. He is probably best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning saga, “The Kentucky Cycle,” and for screenwriting credits that include films like “The Quiet American” and 2016’s Academy Award-nominated “Hacksaw Ridge” — projects that typically have long gestation and production periods.
But Schenkkan says “Building the Wall” came on fast.
“I wrote this before the (November) election in what I describe as a white-hot fury in the space of a week,” says Schenkkan, speaking in the upstairs cafe at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood where the 90-minute play is premiering.
Schenkkan says he was spurred on by the anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies of Donald Trump. But it was written more as a warning, a cautionary tale that imagines what could happen if a man like Donald Trump actually became president and successfully carried out his most extreme immigration policies. But like many people, Schenkkan didn’t really think Trump would win.
Unlike previous works like “The Kentucky Cycle” that require large ensemble casts, “Building the Wall” is the epitome of theater minimalism: one room, two characters.
“It only needed these two people,” says Schenkkan.
“Out of that we feel an entire world of individuals caught up by events. But it is not necessary for us to see those events or to visit with those people.”
The drama revolves around Rick and a historian named Gloria, whom he’s agreed to speak with about the events that led to his conviction.
We learn more about both as they question each other’s motives and beliefs. He’s white, she’s black. She didn’t support Donald Trump. He did.
In one scene, Rick rapturously describes attending his first Trump campaign rally.
“It was like being part of a wave or something. Bigger than yourself. You didn’t feel little anymore, put down anymore, shamed.”
But Gloria wants to know: What about the violence and threats of violence that often punctuated Trump rallies?
“Protesters getting beaten up?” she asks.
“Those guys were there to provoke people and they succeeded,” snorts Rick. “The whole thing was like, I don’t know, a pro-wrestling kinda thing!”
“Some people got hurt,” says Gloria.
“Nobody died,” says Rick.
“No,” says Gloria. “That would come later.”
Later. Just what did happen later?
We learn details of Rick’s crimes as the drama unfolds. His attorney told him not to testify at trial. Now he wants to set the record straight, wants to tell people he’s not some kind of monster. And apparently that he did not act alone.
“I saw things,” says Rick gravely. “I know stuff that’ll make a lot of people look bad.”
Rick chooses the historian Gloria as his confessor. The atrocities are of historic proportion.
“Before this play is over we may still have some judgments, but we understand him in a very different way,” says director Michael Michetti.
Michetti jumped at the chance to work with a Robert Schenkkan script that he believes is so timely. He also says it’s not a partisan diatribe against Trump. It takes on themes of race, class and reconciliation.
“Robert gives a real voice to the people who we now know felt very underrepresented, and therefore they supported Trump’s candidacy and presidency,” says Michetti.
“The character of Rick has to answer a very important question and that is: When is it time to say no?” says producer and Fountain Theatre artistic director Stephen Sachs. “When is it time to stand up and say, ‘I will not do this. I will not follow orders.’ ”
To make room for the play’s three-month run, the Fountain Theatre preempted another previously scheduled performance. The cast and staging, like the script, were assembled fast — in a matter of weeks.
“Oh, it’s extraordinary,” says Sachs. “This does not happen.”
On the afternoon I visit the Fountain, the set is still being painted, actors deep in rehearsal. Schenkkan says it typically takes months, if not years, to take a work from the page to the stage.
“It will be too late by then! American theater today has to decide: Are we curating history or we going to make history? Are we going to be involved in what is happening right now?” asks Schenkkan.
“This play has been designed to be the first of what I hope will be many such new paradigms for the production and creation of responsive American theater.”
“Building the Wall” premieres this weekend at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood. Theaters in five other U.S. cities will stage performances of their own as part of a “rolling premiere” in collaboration with the National New Play Network.
“Building the Wall” is also due to be published in book form in April.
“We are now aggressively licensing the play to anyone who wants to do it. Whether they want to do a production or they want to do a reading, it doesn’t matter,” says Schenkkan.
“You want to do this play for 20 people in your living room? God bless, go out there and do it. Let’s respond now.”
The National New Play Network’s “rolling world premiere” of Robert Schenkkan’s “Building the Wall”:
Los Angeles – The Fountain Theatre – March 18, 2017. Denver – The Curious Theatre Co. – April 4. Washington, D.C. – Forum Theatre/at Arena Stage – April 30. Santa Fe – Adobe Rose Theatre – June 15. Tucson – Borderlands Theater – Sept. 1. Miami – City Theatre – Sept. 29