Everyone has something to say about President Donald Trump these days—including Pulitzer Prize– and Tony Award–winning playwright Robert Schenkkan. It took him less than two weeks to pen Building the Wall, a two-character play created in response to “…current American law, and Trump’s rhetoric, and his most recent executive orders,” Schenkkan told The New York Times.
Denver theatergoers have a unique opportunity to see the production: Building the Wall is traveling across the country as a rolling world premiere, and it’s playing to packed audiences at Curious Theatre Company through April 19. Its first showing was at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles last month; it opens at D.C.’s Forum Theatre on April 30, followed by the Borderlands Theater in Tucson, Arizona, in the fall.
While it’s nothing new for the arts world to respond to the politics and issues of the day, the velocity of this play—it was written just before the election, and Curious decided to produce it just 10 weeks ago—is unique, as is the clear political statement a theater like Curious is making in bringing it to life. In a press release announcing the late addition to its season, managing director Katie Maltais is quoted as saying, “We know this play will be a clear message. Curious is standing up for what we believe in—equality, inclusiveness, and respect. That also means we are standing against hate, divisiveness, and brutality. We see people protesting every day against executive actions and hate—this piece is Curious’ protest.” (As part of that protest, many of the post-show talkbacks include special guests from the local immigration rights and social justice organizations.)
However, in a post-show discussion on April 5, producing artistic director Chip Walton emphasized that Schenkkan does not see Building the Wall as just a play about Trump. (The playwright was in town for opening night on April 4.) “He wants it to be another chapter in an ongoing dialogue about authoritarianism, fascism, the cornerstones of American democracy,” Walton says.
Schenkkan does so by setting the production in a not-so-distant dystopian future, when Trump’s campaign promise to detain and deport millions of immigrants has come to pass. A writer interviews the supervisor of a private prison awaiting sentencing about how he went from overseeing the lockup to having an active role in a tragedy (a spoiler we won’t reveal here). Beyond current events, the play was inspired by Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience, Gitta Sereny’s book about Franz Stangl, commandant of Treblinka, the largest of the Nazi’s five extermination camps.
It may be hard right now to separate these topics from our current president and his actions—especially with the title Schenkkan chose—but they are themes that apply beyond the United States.
And perhaps it’s not all as dire as Schenkkan seems to view it. As actor John Jurcheck, who plays Rick, the prison supervisor, asked during the talkback in response to a question about the play’s title: “What are the bricks being laid right now that we need to be aware of?” But this play—and the theaters staging it—also seem to be telling audiences that it’s not too late to slow the building process, or reverse it altogether.
Said Walton: “We want this to be as much about what you do when you leave these doors as what happened in here.”
If You Go: Catch Building the Wall at Curious Theatre through April 19. Tickets are $25–$30.