Written By April May : Page 40
PHOTO BY TOM KELLER
“Mr. Trump, Tear Down This Wall.”
“I think we are in the middle of an unprecedented crisis in this country,” says Robert Schenkkan during a break in rehearsals of his latest play, Building the Wall. “It is not Red State versus Blue State, Republican versus Democrat. What we are experiencing is an attack, an assault, on elemental American values, on who we are as a people. And everybody is going to have a role to play in the battle over this. And it’s each individual citizen’s responsibility to be conscious about what they are doing about it and the choices they make or do not make.”
Schenkkan says this despite living a busy, acclaimed creative life. He transitions fluidly between genres, from writing stage plays to scripting for film and television. Among his theater pieces are The Kentucky Cycle, which received a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1992, and All the Way, which premiered on Broadway in March 2014 and promptly garnered two Tony Awards: best play, and best actor for Bryan Cranston as President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Then All the Way was picked up by HBO for a TV movie, also starring Cranston; the telefilm was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award and eight Emmy Awards in 2016.
Among Schenkkan’s other TV credits are HBO’s The Pacific (2010, co-writer) and the USA miniseries Spartacus (2004, based on the novel by Howard Fast). His feature film screenwriting credits include 2002’s The Quiet American (with Christopher Hampton, based on the novel by Graham Greene), and 2016’s Hacksaw Ridge (with Andrew Knight), nominated for six 2016 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
But for today, Schenkkan is focused on a two-person theater piece, Building the Wall, about life under the Donald Trump presidency. Directed by Michael Michetti and starring Bo Foxworth and Judith Moreland, the play will have the first of many “rolling world premieres” at the 99-seat Fountain Theatre in Hollywood. (For tickets go to www.fountaintheatre.com.)
Politics comes to the fore in much of Schenkkan’s work, but there’s a personal component as well. He was part of the original group of writers for The Pacific and took the job, in part, because his father had served in the Navy, stationed in the Pacific front with a bomb disposal unit. “I had a very personal connection to the material, as well as overall interest in history, specifically World War II,” Schenkkan explains. “I shared writing credit on four of the 12 episodes, with a staff that included Bruce C. McKenna, Laurence Andries, Michelle Ashford, George Pelecanos, and Graham Yost.” Schenkkan’s participation led to a WGA Award for Ashford and himself for co-scripting “Part Eight”.
There was also a bit of personal history behind Schenkkan’s All the Way, which chronicled LBJ’s landmark campaigning for civil rights bills. In the 1950s, Schenkkan’s father became acquainted with then-Texas Senator Johnson after being hired to set up Austin’s first public television and radio station. His initial priority was to somehow get Johnson’s permission, since the new stations would be competing with Johnson’s own television and radio stations.
“So my family knew him and I knew him,” Schenkkan continues. “When I had the opportunity to write the play for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I had been thinking about it for a very, very long time. He was such an incredible figure, a really Shakespearean character, and he changed this country.”
Segue to 2016 and the election of Donald Trump. “I had read a book a year earlier, quite by accident, called Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience, by Gitta Sereny,” Schenkkan says during a rehearsal break. “It’s kind of a classic in Holocaust literature and it stuck with me. In the ramp-up to the election, I began feeling really concerned, angry, and upset...particularly with candidate Trump’s poisonous rhetoric about immigration, undocumented workers, and the building of a wall to ‘keep America safe.’ The implicit or explicit racist appeal in that kind of demagoguery really did not sit well with me. I sat down and, in a fit of rage, wrote Building the Wall.”
The play is speculative fiction, set in the fall of 2019, more than two years into the Trump presidency. Trump has carried out his campaign promise to round up and detain millions of immigrants. It’s a two-character piece set in a maximum-security prison. The characters are Rick (Bo Foxworth), a middle-aged white army veteran from Texas, and a visitor recording his story. The former supervisor of a very large private prison, Rick has recently been convicted of some unspecified, serious crime incurred while carrying out the federal policy that has escalated into the unimaginable. He’s awaiting the penalty phase of his sentence. In the room with him is Gloria (Judith Moreland), an African-American professor of history, who is the only person Rick has agreed to give an interview to. Gloria is there to try to understand what happened, and why. And to some degree, Rick is also asking the same questions.
“In the ramp-up to the election, I began feeling really concerned, angry, and upset...particularly with Trump’s poisonous rhetoric about immigration, undocumented workers, and the building of a wall to ‘keep America safe.’ The implicit or explicit racist appeal in that kind of demagoguery did not sit well with me. In a fit of rage, I wrote Building the Wall.”
“In the ramp-up to the election, I began feeling really concerned, angry, and upset...particularly with Trump’s poisonous rhetoric about immigration, undocumented workers, and the building of a wall to ‘keep America safe.’ The implicit or explicit racist appeal in that kind of demagoguery did not sit well with me. In a fi t of rage, I wrote Building the Wall.”
Although Schenkkan doesn’t lay out the specific crime that has been committed, it’s clear it is one for which Rick can face the death penalty. “In general, I would not describe myself as neutral,” Schenkkan says. “I think all this border security talk is completely bogus. Not that crime doesn’t happen. Of course it does. But by and large, to say that the vast majority of modern crimes is committed by recent immigrants to the United States, to me it’s very clearly ‘red meat,’ race baiting kind of talk.”
The play itself, while very specific in its details, isn’t a polemic about immigration policy. According to Schenkkan, “It’s about the importance of individual conscience in the coming months as we hopefully weather this political crisis.” He pauses, then: “I am using my words very precisely here.”
Schenkkan doesn’t watch President Trump on television. “I read what he has to say in the newspaper. I find I can better absorb the rhetoric of our current president if I read it rather than experience it live or on delayed telecast.”
Schenkkan is aware that the process of unveiling Building the Wall has become bigger than he ever expected. “This is an extraordinary event, the way this is rolling out, not like anything I’ve ever done before, or ever experienced before,” he says. “I wrote this play in late October. I had a reading at a theater in New York in early January. It is now March. I have five productions scheduled. We’ve had requests for over 115 productions and readings that we are just now beginning to sort through. And these productions and readings are across the country: small cites, big cities, rural, urban. We’ve had requests from France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Canada, Mexico City. There is just an extraordinary surge of interest in this.”
Schenkkan says there’s also interest in a documentary about the play. “It will wind up in some sort of cinematic version as well and the play will be published the week after we open in LA,” he adds.
All this in just five months. “This is extraordinarily rapid,” Schenkkan admits. “This is not the way theater usually works. And that’s a good thing. Because this is not business as usual anymore. We all live in that world. We have thrown the rule book out the window. Theater is art. And the art has got to be meaningful.”
As deeply involved as he is in the development of Building the Wall, it’s not the only project that occupies Schenkkan’s mind and time. “I do have other projects,” he says. “I was just in Denver, working on a new play called Hanussen, commissioned by the Denver Theatre Centre, as part of the Summer Theatre Festival. The play concerns Erik Jan Hanussen, a leading headliner in the last days of the Weimer Republic in Berlin.”
For the big screen, Schenkkan is writing a movie for Joseph Gordon-Levitt for Amazon. “It’s a wonderful story about a time during Reconstruction when the Seventh Army threw down with the Ku Klux Klan in South Carolina. The US government went to war against the Klan. And I have two movies which I hope will be in production this year: The Project, which is about the Manhattan Project, which I’ve written for Rob Redford to direct; and The Fall of Saigon, which I started, like Hacksaw Ridge, several years ago. This movie is about America’s last 24 hours in Saigon, before the evacuation. And I hope to have announcements for both sometime soon. I am very excited. I like both scripts very much. So, yes, I have a lot going on.”
To say the least.