The Current

Building the Wall: A theatrical response to the age of Donald Trump

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan on his new play, Building the Wall, and the responsibility of playwrights in politically volatile times.
Playwright Robert Schenkkan hopes his new play Building the Wall raises consciousness about Trump's threat to America. (Courtesy of Fountain Theatre)

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Pulitzer-prize winning playwright Robert Schenkkan's new play paints a disturbing, dystopian future for the United States under Donald Trump.

Building the Wall, which is already one of the best-selling shows in the 27-year history of the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles, was written in the space of a week in late October of last year.

"I was so outraged," Schenkkan tells The Current's Friday host Dave Seglins. "I was so concerned and the urgent need as an artist to respond to what I perceive to be an urgent crisis just took over."

Schenkkan believes that playwrights have a responsibility in times of crisis. The Hillary-supporter thought the election would have turned out differently, yet he felt the U.S. had already crossed dangerous lines in the lead up to the election.
In 2014, Robert Schenkkan's play All the Way, starring Bryan Cranston as President Lyndon Johnson won the Tony Award for Best Play. (

"I had been increasingly concerned about what I was hearing. It wasn't just the language of the then-candidate Trump but it was also the way in which politicians, talking heads, correspondents, people who should know better were trying to downplay the seriousness of this," Schenkkan says.

"They were constantly reassuring the American audience that well, he doesn't really mean it, or hey it's just words, or well don't worry should in the unlikely event he becomes president, we will make sure nothing terrible happens."

Building the Wall tells a cautionary tale through the characters of Rick, a white middle-class  prison warden, and Gloria, an African-American Professor. Rick becomes a prisoner himself for committing serious crimes involving prisoners at his private prison, and Gloria is tasked with understanding what led Rick to his present situation.The play tackles issues such as immigration, race and private prisons and the political choices that Schenkkan believes the U.S. will inevitably face in the next couple of years.

"Whenever a country has taken this unfortunate turn down a dark road, it has happened because individual citizens have yielded to the state of their own moral authority. The current President of the United States is not a Nazi, not remotely, he is not a even necessarily Republican or a Democrat — if anything he is an oligarch." he explains.

"But he has definitely taken a page from the authoritarian playbook and he has done so very adroitly."

Robert Schenkkan's Building the Wall stars Judith Moreland who plays Gloria, an African-American professor, and Bo Foxworth as Rick, a white middle-class prison warden who becomes a prisoner. (Ed Krieger/Fountain Theatre )

Schenkkan believes the U.S is in the middle of a dire crisis.Trump's rhetoric and authoritarian tendencies, according to Schenkkan, are a threat to fundamental American values such as the separation of powers and freedom of press.

"I don't see the political crisis right now ...  as a struggle between left or right, or liberal or progressive or Republican or Democrat. What we're experiencing is an attack, a concerted attack on fundamental American values," he suggests.

But Schenkkan also hopes that his play will ignite a genuine dialogue in the U.S. across the political spectrum. His character Rick, is a Trump supporter. Schenkkan wanted to make sure he wasn't one-dimensional.

"It's all too easy to dismiss people you disagree with as foolish, or not having a grasp of the facts or being prejudiced or bigoted or whatever. That's not helpful," he tells Seglins.

"It's not actually true necessarily for everybody and it was very, very important for me in this play that the character of Rick not be a stereotype and not play into liberal or progressive stereotypes about what these people are like or what they want."

Building the Wall will be produced in Ottawa by Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, playing November 30 - December 9 at The Gladstone Theatre.

Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Howard Goldenthal.