Working in the Theatre: Building the Wall

I was having a very specific emotional reaction
to a current political, cultural crisis. One of the more dismal Presidential campaigns
in US history was staggering to a close. I found the rhetoric by the Republican candidate
about immigration and border security intentionally incendiary, obviously racist, nativist, and
dangerous. I was so upset by it that I needed to respond, and that resulted in the play Building the Wall, which I wrote in a kind of white-hot
fury in the space of a week. This play had the urgency of now just written
all over it, and I wanted the Fountain Theatre to lead the charge. So I said yes right away to Robert, and we
immediately jumped in together in making Building the Wall a reality. We had to get a director right away, we had
to go right into casting immediately. Of course, all of this kind of energy created
a passion and a sense of urgency with all of us, and really made us feel and realize
how theatre can be of the moment, that it’s not something that you necessarily always
have to plan one year in advance, it can happen right now. I frequently borrow from historical event
to illuminate present-day circumstances. In this case, I had moved into the future. Robert’s written a play that he hopes is
going to be a cautionary tale, that we will course-correct before it comes true. That’s right, and you obviously have no
idea what she’s saying. And also, you’ve been in this room for a
while, but you’ve never been in this room either. So, I mean, you had been in moments before
with the guards and stuff but you’re also sussing out the surroundings. Right, I’ve just been brought in, so I’ve
just been unshackled, un-handcuffed. Building the Wall is a two-character play,
it takes place in a private interview room in a federal prison, and there we meet a man
named Rick. We discover that he’s been convicted of
crimes and we don’t know what. He’s being interviewed by a woman who is
a professor at a University, and a historian. We come to find out that Rick has been the
leader of a private prison company. It’s primary function was to process undocumented
immigrants who were being detained and then deported to their home countries. And things go downhill from there. The play really wants there to be a tension
between the points of view, the backgrounds, the political beliefs of these two characters,
and we’ve had to sort of agree during the rehearsal process that the goal is not to
get them to agree about an objective point of view, but to understand what each character’s
point of view is. The play has been changing to address changes
in our world. It’s ripped right out of the headlines,
I mean, we’ve been having to alter lines because of what’s been happening in the
news at the time. All of these events are very fresh in our
memories, but they’re spoken in the play as if they had happened two years ago in the
past. It’s really an interesting kind of duality
that happens in the play, where you are sitting in the present tense and kind of staring into
a looking glass, peering into what could possibly happen in the future. So the play not only deals with some very
specific, very topical political social issues — border security, immigration, private prisons
— but a larger, more fundamental humanistic inquiry. There’s a famous experiment called the Milgram
experiment that says that most people will follow the orders of an authority figure,
even if it means harming another human being. What is the relationship, what should be the
relationship between the individual and the state, and their conscience. And I come down very firmly on the side that
for the individual, their conscience must always be their fundamental guide, even if
that puts them at odds with the society or with the laws of that society, and with the
consequences that follow from being in opposition. What happens when we don’t say no? When you are afraid or feel powerless to resist? When that happens on an individual basis,
the ripple effect of that can be catastrophic. It’s our responsibility to think, to reason,
to have a moral conscience, to be aware, and to say no when we feel it’s the right thing
to do. Hello, and welcome to the award-winning Fountain
Theatre. This is Robert Schenkkan. Please take this moment to silence your cell
phone, and remember, no texting please during the performance. I haven’t met many college professors before,
you don’t look like what I thought. How is that? You mean black? I’m not allowed computer access, so I couldn’t
look you up. Yeah, I never know what word to use, black,
African American… I like black, is it a problem, Rick? Doesn’t matter to me, I’m not racist,
I’ve lived and worked with all kinds of people. Hispanic? In Texas, are you kiddin’? I can throw a rock in any direction and hit
one. Uh, unfortunate expression there. There are a lot of characters that are either
referenced or implied in the play, obviously Donald Trump’s spectre looms over the entire
play. The other character that always looms over
this play is a broader immigrant community. The play is very much about what happens when
we decide to detain and deport immigrants, and in the play a lot of extremely unfortunate
things happen to a number of these people. Look, I’m not crazy, it was the situation,
there was enormous pressure from the brass… Rick, if you insist on repeating the same
bullshit that your lawyer gave at court I’m gonna walk out of here and never come back. On the other hand, if you want to talk to
me, one person to another, really talk about what happened and why, maybe help us all understand
so that nobody else finds themselves in your situation? We can do that. It’s certainly something that we talked
about a lot during rehearsals, it’s something that I think that as artists we need to continue
finding ways to speak about this, to have compassion for those people, and to continue
remembering that human impact. [applause] So, does anyone have any–a question for Robert
about the play, a comment about the play? We have crossed a line and there is no more
room for civility. What we’re experiencing is an attack on
fundamental American values, and the antidote to that is individual consciousness. We have to reject the narrative, remember
I talked about the story, the narrative that’s being spun, that’s the false narrative. The true narrative is that in fact, none of
that can happen, none of that ideology can be translated into practical legislation and
public policy unless we allow it to do so. How do we, especially at a time like this,
transcend politics, and create bridges of empathy so that people can see each other
better. There’s such a dearth of immigration related
contemporary plays, that I welcome anything, right, that actually wants to unpack and discuss
and debate a contemporary issue in a universal way, and I think Building the Wall does that. That play, to me, presented a challenge and
a question, right? So I saw it and I’m thinking, like ‘Oh,
man I wonder what the play looks like if they actually brought those people from the other
side of the wall, like, what would they say?’ Immigration is the most controversial yet
least understood issue in America and public life. I’m saying that as a journalist who’s
been traveling the country nonstop for the past six years doing this work, and I say
that as an undocumented person who gets asked so many different questions. The detainment and the deprecation of immigrants,
that’s been happening since, like, right after 9/11. It was because of Bill Clinton that people
like me can’t just leave the country and try to come back. And then after 9/11, President Bush started
detaining and deporting immigrants. And then President Obama, throughout the entire
presidency, three million immigrants deported. More than any other in the history of this
country, modern America. And then Trump happens, meaning what happened
with Clinton, with the second Bush presidency and the Obama presidency, right? For us, that has been the dystopia. Well, it can get worse. Every day is almost a surprise. Im grateful that the play, it’s out here
in LA, it’s getting seen across the country, but the question now for me is: how many other
more plays and musicals and works of theatre can we create to really complement and complicate
the conversation even more? My abuelita, on the other hand, believes that
the best way to avoid a problem is to simply stay inside the house. That’s why I’m really excited that we’re
working on Prieto, my first one-man play that my colleague Yosimar Reyes and another undocumented artist, Kat Evasco is working on. We’re actually seeking to make the entire
production an undocumented production, so hire an undocumented lighting designer, and
undocumented projectionist, just so we have an entire production by undocumented people,
for undocumented people. Schenkkan has written an interesting character
in Gloria, in that she talks about race and says that race is a defining reason for why
she’s a historian. I want to hear your side, Rick, in your own
words. That’s why I’m here. If you’re honest I’ll make sure that what
you say is printed just like you say it, no filter, no editing, your words. They haven’t given us a lot of time, Rick,
and I don’t honestly know if they’re gonna let me come back after today. As an African-American, Gloria and I have
a very definite and specific perspective on what American freedom, American democracy,
and what it means to be an American is. This play is a lot about walking in somebody
else’s shoes and having compassion for people who don’t look like you, who weren’t raised
like you, who maybe are from a different country, who have a different faith. One of the defining questions in storytelling
is this question of, who gets to frame the story, and who gets to tell the story? White people get to tell the story, they get
to frame the narrative, and yet all these other people are quote-unquote “the minorities,”
and we’re always at the periphery. What really attracted me to this play that
you’ve written and that we’re working on, is that you’re a human being first,
more than anything else, before you’re illegal or before whatever this condition is. I’m trying to write a play about a kid that’s
trying to survive and make it in the world, and that’s it. And through DACA, I’ve been able to now
have a job that treats me well, that gives me breaks, and I get health insurance, which
is really crazy. And even though that little social is just
a work permit, I think about how drastically it’s changed my life in the last three,
four years that I’ve had it. Now I’m here, developing a play and being
an artist, and I don’t know how many undocumented people get to say that they’re working artists,
or they’re making, you know, money off of their art, so I feel really blessed and grateful. I heard about this spot from you, because
in San Francisco, there was a street in the mission where people got their social security
cards, but where do people get the social, where do you have to go? You know sometimes old guys will make a sign,
so they’ll go like this or something, and then you kind of know. Okay honestly though, the funny thing about
that is when I was doing this, nobody thinks I’m undocumented, so when I was standing
in mission, people would just be like, it’s almost like they thought I was a cop or something. That’s true! Mexicans don’t think that Asians are undocumented,
so why would you need a card? [sirens] [music] There’s what, 800,000 undocumented immigrants
just in the LA area alone? We’re not eligible for food stamps, we can’t
get health insurance, and we’re not eligible for social security, even though we pay thousands. But people don’t know those facts, they
don’t want to believe those facts. Undocumented people are actually an integral
part of the culture, and not just the culture, the economy. When white people move, it’s manifest destiny,
it’s courageous, it’s essential. When people of color move what’s the question,
is it legal? Is it a crime? So how do we reframe that conversation? All the Western democracies are struggling
with similar issues. We’re increasingly a multicultural, diverse
civilization, and there are inherent tensions in that process, and particularly in times
of economic distress. And what we are seeing today is the rise,
the re-emergence of the authoritarian impulse. It takes advantage of this fundamental anxiety,
which at its heart is a kind of economic issue, but expresses itself in tribalistic and racial
forms. What I find interesting about art, it’s
almost as if white people get to be everybody, and people of color play roles. Right? So black people are this way, gay people are
this way, latinos are this way, illegal people are this way. The biggest trick is that undocumented people
are like everybody else. We’re just as dumb, we’re just as smart,
we’re just a beautiful, we’re just as ugly, we’re just as flawed, we’re just
as imperfect as everybody else. So it’s not one story, it’s a collection
of stories. A good piece of art, a good piece of theatre,
is a stage talking to itself. Well, who’s doing all the talking? Who gets to listen? Theatre of course is about bringing together
very disparate groups of people, during which they share a story. A story about themselves, about their society,
about their culture. And in the sharing of that story, hopefully
they learn something about themselves, they are provoked to think more deeply about themselves,
to ask better questions, and to leave in some fundamental ways, altered and perhaps more
open to the possibility of change. [music]

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