Playwright Robert Schenkkan’s response to the election was swift and fierce. During the run-up to the vote, “I was incredibly upset and anxious about how the campaign was unfolding,” he told Westword, “and extremely concerned by the increasingly harsh and divisive race-baiting rhetoric.”
His response was a new play, Building the Wall, and he wrote the first draft in a week. “I took the rhetoric, the actual campaign promises, and played them out into what, in novel form, you’d call speculative fiction, imagining a future of how Trump’s promises might play out and what could happen," says Schenkkan. "And then the election turned out the way it did, which I found shocking, and only became more disturbed.”
Schenkkan, a Pulitzer winner for The Kentucky Cycle, is no stranger to Denver. His musical, The 12, written with composer Neil Berg, was produced two years ago at the Denver Center, which mounted his Tony Award-winning examination of Lyndon B. Johnson’s first year in office, All the Way, a year later. Hanussen received a reading at this year’s New Play Summit. Building the Wall, however, will have its Denver premiere at Curious Theatre, where artistic director Chip Walton has long been dedicated to courageous and topical work. Walton’s response on reading the play was, “We have to do this, and we have to do this now,” Schenkkan says.
Schenkkan has found Denver audiences enthusiastic, and “couldn’t be happier to have this play here,” he says. “Curious is a fabulous theater; I love the work they do.”
It is difficult for a theater to insert a new work into an already settled season, but Walton managed; Curious will be showing Building the Wall from April 4 to 19 in rotation with the current offering, Constellations.
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Around the country, directors reacted to Building the Wall with similar passion and urgency. “They all had the same response,” Schenkkan says. “'If theater artists are going to matter, then we cannot continue to respond in the normal way we would do business — commission a play, workshop it, and two years later there’s a production — not if we’re going to be part of the essential conversation that must take place right now.' This is not Republican versus Democrat. There’s a fundamental assault on American values, the notion of equality under the law, freedom of speech and the press.”
The play, a two-hander, takes place in the visitors' room of a maximum-security federal prison. The manager of a large private prison brought in to handle the growing roundup of illegal aliens has now been imprisoned here himself. He has decided to talk to an African-American woman, a historian. “The play is an encounter between the two, and an attempt to unravel what has happened,” says Schenkkan. He notes that the prison system is an enormous industry in this country, one that the Obama administration attempted to tame. But under Trump, he says, “private prisons are roaring back into life.”
In his beautiful elegy for W.B. Yeats, W.H. Auden famously observed that “poetry makes nothing happen.” Does Schenkkan think that a play, no matter how timely or eloquent, can actually affect public events? “I do think theater can be an influence,” he responds. “I absolutely feel that.” In addition to Curious and four other productions that make up a rolling premiere of Building the Wall, “we have requests from theaters all over the country and Canada, and interest from the U.K., France, Belgium and Germany. In the U.S., interest is all over the map, not just from major cities. I have never seen anything like this in my career, the outpouring of interest. Not just numbers, but diversity — lots of red states and small communities saying, ‘Can we do a reading?’ And we’re going to make all of that possible. That’s the whole point: Not business as usual. We’re not saying we’re going to hold this or that market back, not saying, 'You’re too small. You’re a community theater.' Repeat: Not business as usual. There’s an intensity and an enthusiasm and ferocity of citizen involvement that we haven’t seen since the Vietnam era.”
Curious Theatre Company presents Building the Wall, April 4-19,1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, curioustheatre.org.