Dystopian play about President Trump flirts with reality
The Santa Clara
May 18, 2017
“What is a wall? It’s a construct, a device for keeping people out.”
So states a character in the aptly-named play, “Building the Wall.” Read by two Santa Clara alumni on stage Tuesday night in the Music Recital Hall, the new show raises contentious, but nevertheless important questions about the current presidential administration.
Set in 2019, the play toys with horrific possibilities. After a terrorist attack on Times Square devastates the country, President Donald Trump initiates a nationwide “round-up” of illegal immigrants.
“Building the Wall” was written by Robert Schenkkan—a Pulitzer prize winner and co-writer of the 2016 film “Hacksaw Ridge.” Interestingly enough, Schenkkan wrote the political play even before Trump’s election in November. As he explained, he was “sufficiently upset” about the discriminatory rhetoric Trump used in the campaign.
“That first draft was written in a fury in a week,” the playwright told the “AmericanStatesman” in an interview.
Since its world premiere in March of this year at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles, the show has become part of the National New Play Network, a non-profit coalition of theaters across the United States.
The play opens in a prison on the first meeting between Rick, a former prison guard turned inmate currently residing in solitary confinement, and Gloria, a history professor who wants to study the events which led to his sentencing. The play unfolds slowly, but dramatically (it takes almost the entire 90 minutes for the play to reveal the crime).
Rick, played by Nick Manfredi ‘14, is a white man in his 40s with a military background. He’s a patriotic Trump supporter and defender.
Gloria, played by Jennifer DeLane Bradford ‘05, is a middle-aged black woman who clearly does not support Trump or his policies.
Their stark opposition on the political spectrum immediately creates a palpable tension onstage.
Were the play to keep the characters in their at-first, well-defined boxes and stereotypes, there would be no story to tell or lessons to be learned.
Yet, as the play progresses, the complexities in the characters and commonalities between them slowly begin to show, making it a dynamic and engaging piece of storytelling.
For instance, when Rick talks about how 9/11 motivated him to join the service to protect his country and his subsequent experience in the Middle East, Gloria reveals that her brother died overseas because of the War on Terror.
In that moment, the audience begins to see the invisible walls between them crumble—the two characters become more willing to see the other’s point of view.
At the crux of the play is its bleak look at the mass deportations. As Rick explains to Gloria, the prison he worked at continually detained illegal immigrants, despite the fact that the native countries refused to take the immigrants back.
As Trump’s sweeping crackdown ensued, the private prison can no longer maintain the number of detainees. Consequently, health conditions inside began deteriorating, leading to horrifying cholera outbreaks and multiple deaths.
The play tells a moving story about not only small actions that continually build on top of each other, but also inactions that could have prevented the situation’s escalation. Without giving anything away, the play ultimately culminates with a terrifying—and all too realistic—conclusion.
After all, back in June 2015, Trump associated immigrating Mexicans with high crime rates and sexual violence in his campaign announcement speech.
“I will build a great wall—and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me—and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words,” he said.
Thus, from his very first step into politics, Trump has fueled xenophobia and racism in the nation.
Perhaps nothing more exemplifies Trump’s form of discrimination than the Executive Order that banned immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
And although “Building the Wall” is set in the future, it’s also eerily reminiscent of the past. Rick’s defenses for atrocities committed against immigrants at the prison draw clear parallels to those used in the Nuremberg trials after the Holocaust.
In that sense then, the story becomes a dark warning of the dystopia that awaits the country if we do not heed the lessons of history.
The Center for the Arts & Humanities’ Art & Democracy Group—stylized as ART/DEMO/ CRACY—brought the play to campus.
An interdisciplinary group of faculty and student research fellows, ART/DEMO/CRACY aims to foster dialogue around the intersection between art and politics in an increasingly polarized nation.
“We want to be a voice of the arts in our political climate, remaining neutral, but also doing what we believe is best,” said junior Thomas Ariniello, one of the Art & Democracy student fellows.
The group has recently sponsored other politically-charged events on campus, including “Bracing for Betsy,” a discussion of the appointment of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and NEA Advocacy Day, which showcased a play-reading about the National Endowment for the Arts in the middle of Benson Memorial Center.
“There’s some major things happening that artists can speak to in ways that are more bold than people who have to be careful about what they say,” said Kristin Kusanovich, one of the co-facilitators and founders of the art group.
“In the space of art, we can elevate the dialogue and go beyond a typical sense of what’s good and bad in an ‘other space’ that doesn’t have that judgement.”
Contact Lindsey Tenes at email@example.com or call (408) 554-4852.