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In 'Building the Wall,' President Trump declares martial law, and tragedy follows

In the not-so-distant future, a terrorist strike in New York has led President Trump to declare martial law and force millions of immigrants into detention camps. The situation quickly spirals out of control, and as chaos reigns in the haphazardly constructed bureaucracy, mass deaths quickly follow.

That is the scenario New York-based writer Robert Schenkkan imagines in “Building the Wall,” a play running Sept. 23-Oct. 8 at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami. The play opens after the catastrophe has happened and revolves around a conversation between historian Gloria (played by West Palm Beach actor Karen Stephens) and detention-center supervisor Rick (Coral Gables actor Gregg Weiner), who is awaiting sentencing for “just following orders” when carrying out the federal policy that resulted in the deaths of scores of people under his charge.

Schenkkan, a Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning playwright who wrote “Hacksaw Ridge” and “All the Way,” says it was important for the play to be as topical as possible. He wrote “Building the Wall” in October 2016. Four months later, the play was first produced onstage in Los Angeles.

“That’s very unusual,” Schenkkan says. “I mean, it’s not unusual for me to write quickly when I have prepared myself thoroughly … but never that quickly. In this instance, there was no prep, per se. I had an idea of this encounter … and I just jumped into it. There’s been six or seven productions since, and I’ve continued to tinker with it, including the one coming to Miami. The one South Florida will see is the most recent draft.”

“Building the Wall” was developed by a program within the National New Play Network (NNPN), designed to disseminate plays to member theaters with urgency, cutting the page-to-stage process to a fraction of the time it usually takes with readings and workshops before a play is produced. (One of Schenkkan’s most recent plays, “The Great Society,” took two years to make it from script to Broadway.) Miami’s City Theatre is staging the play, under the directorship of Liberty City’s Margaret M. Ledford, in a partnership with the Arsht Center.

Here is more about “Building the Wall” from Ledford, Weiner, Stephens and Schenkkan.

The Spark

“I felt [the presidential campaign] was a genuine crisis and a moment of emergency and requires an immediate response. It wasn’t just the racist rhetoric that came from the Republican candidate that was concerning. It was the way other normally responsible and intelligent members of that party … tried to normalize this. You saw it with the talking heads and the other Republican candidates. That was the flag that got raised. This is where democracy goes south. It takes a lot for a radical ideology to become law and practice. It requires a buy-in and, at the least, the acquiescence of millions of people. It doesn’t happen without that. And nothing I have seen since [the election] has changed my mind. I think the play will endure on its own. Its dramatic core will last.”

— Robert Schenkkan

The Story

“I really wanted to engage the audience in this fundamental issue about the responsibility between the citizen and the state and the importance of not abdicating our moral responsibilities. In order to tell a story like that … it has to be very personal and small. And I wanted the play to be very portable and inexpensive so it could be very easily produced and widely produced.”

— Schenkkan

The Characters

“I [connected] with [Rick’s] family life. Not that everything is perfect … but he had a mom and a dad. He was married with a baby. Not that I have a child, but I have gotten that the basic drive for this guy was to provide for his family.”

— Gregg Weiner

“To successfully engage with these issues, you have to play fair with the arguments. So it was very important, from the beginning of the play, to do that, to put myself in each of the characters, their perspective, their position and to try and give them the best argument possible of why they believe in what they believe in. There’s a lot at stake. The stakes couldn’t be any higher. Both of them come in with their own preconceived notions. Both of them lie. Both of them withhold. And both of them learn things about each other and about themselves that they had no idea. There is surprise and discovery. That’s very important.”

— Schenkkan

“Racism is talked about within the context of the play. And [Gloria] shares an early experience in her life with Rick … about her first encounter with racism when she was a child. As a black woman, I can certainly connect to that and the fact that she’s in the room with this man who has been accused of doing something atrocious and a lot of it has something to do with a group of people being the ‘other.’ So I can relate to that on those grounds — being outcast, being different — than the majority culture of those in power.”

— Karen Stephens

The Politics

“Everyone has political opinions. Some people are more active than others. But we felt that this play was a great jumping off point for community dialogue. Almost every show has a talkback after it. We are hoping to increase audience interaction. Two performances will be with American Sign Language. Two with live audio Creole and two with live audio Spanish language. We feel that our community is the community that has to have this conversation.”

— Margaret M. Ledford

“As far as a political point of view, I don’t call myself anything. I hate the labels out there. I am a human being. That’s how I approached Rick. His point of view is obviously something I need to understand. [Schenkkan] captures the psyche of a Trump voter. It was something that the nation didn’t expect, which was for Trump to win. The working-class people [felt] they were forgotten, and they got angry and they went out and voted. I think [Schenkkan] captured that point of view with Rick. That was originally what connected me to Rick’s point of view. He’s a working-class guy. He’s not your typical, affluent Republican. He’s just a working guy. That’s one of his lines: ‘I’m just a regular guy.’ ”

— Weiner

“I think whatever your political slant is, you can reach this play. For me, I’m from Tennessee, a conservative state, the buckle of the Bible Belt. And I had a lot of conversations about this in rehearsal. Racism is so embedded in the American fiber that if you don’t experience it, you don’t think it exists. It’s endemic. And I myself have been able to see it in my feelings, being raised in Tennessee … How things work in Tennessee isn’t necessarily how things work in the rest of the world. I think that is important for the character Rick. He says right up front that he’s not a racist. And he isn’t, in his own mind.”

— Ledford

The Immediacy

“When we read it, we felt that it was something that needed to be heard in Miami. In a city as multicultural and has as many immigrants in it, that it needed to be heard here.”

— Ledford

“I thought this was an urgent situation and that I needed to respond now. I want this play produced now and as widely as possible, and I don’t care who does it. It can be professional theater, small community theater, dinner theater, in a church basement, I don’t care. And with the [NNPN’s] New Play Exchange, we have shown that you can, in fact, write and produce and distribute a play this quickly. I’m very proud and very hopeful about that, and hope other authors will do that, as well. You can do it. If you feel that you must, we have proved that you can do it.”

— Schenkkan

“Building the Wall” runs Sept. 23-Oct. 8 at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd, in Miami. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, with 3 p.m. matinees Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets cost $34-$54. To order, call 305-949-6722 or go to ArshtCenter.org.

Spanish audio translations of the show will take place 7:30 p.m. Sept. 29 and Oct. 6; Creole audio translations 3 p.m. Sept. 30 and Oct. 7; and American Sign Language translations 3 p.m. Oct. 1 and Oct. 8.

rhagwood@southflorida.com

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