Even before the election that transformed billionaire reality TV star Donald J. Trump into the 45th president of the United States, playwright Robert Schenkkan was so disturbed by the candidate’s anti-immigrant rhetoric that he decided to respond.
Not with a Tweet. Not with an opinion-page essay. The Pulitzer Prize winner spoke back to candidate Trump with a full-length play.
“Building the Wall,” Schenkkan’s eerily prescient piece about life under a man he didn’t expect to win the election, has already been produced by a number of American theaters, with additional productions planned in the United States and several other countries.
Miami’s City Theatre, which has specialized in short plays and musicals during 21 years of presenting its popular Summer Shorts Festival, is going long-form with its own production of “Building the Wall,” just the second full-length in the company’s history.
Coproduced with the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, the play previews Saturday-Sunday and Sept. 28 before its official Sept. 29 opening in the Arsht’s Carnival Studio Theater. Schenkkan is expected to attend and participate in the post-show discussion after the Sept. 30 evening performance.
For the playwright, who won the 1992 Pulitzer for his six-hour epic drama “The Kentucky Cycle,” writing the 90-minute “Building the Wall” and sending it quickly out for production by multiple theaters was a different way of working.
“With a world premiere, I’m very involved, very precise about its trajectory,” says Schenkkan, whose works also include the play and screenplay “All the Way” (about President Lyndon Johnson and the civil rights movement) and coauthoring the screenplay of the Oscar-nominated “Hacksaw Ridge.” “I wanted to license this as widely as possible. I wanted it done everywhere.”
Writing his first draft in a week and continuing to tweak the script ever since, Schenkkan made his play inexpensive to produce – two characters on a single set – and utilized the National New Play Network’s “rolling world premiere” program to help get it out to multiple companies (City Theatre is an associate member of the network).
“There was an urgency. The response [to the anti-immigrant rhetoric] couldn’t wait…Theater has to become more adroit, more fleet-footed,” the playwright says, adding that he’s gratified by the way artistic directors “have responded with enthusiasm and changed their seasons to do the play.”
Set in 2019, “Building the Wall” centers on an encounter in a prison meeting room. Gloria, a black history professor, has come to interview Rick, a white man facing a death sentence. A terrorist attack in Times Square has led to the imposition of martial law, then to the rounding up of vast numbers of illegal immigrants placed into detention camps and private prisons to await deportation. Something unfathomable but not unprecedented has happened, a horror slowly revealed through Rick’s conversation with Gloria.
Schenkkan wrote the play before Trump’s election, before the president’s travel ban, before Charlottesville, before the threat to DACA dreamers. The playwright observes, “We’re all struggling to keep up with the pace of events.”
Staged by City’s artistic director Margaret M. Ledford, the Miami production features Carbonell Award winning actors Karen Stephens as Gloria and Gregg Weiner as Rick. Before they were cast, the actors read a short scene from the play at a City Theatre event attended by Schenkkan in February, when the campaign rhetoric was fresh and apprehension about the country’s future was surging.
Says Ledford, “When we read it, a lot of things hadn’t happened yet. It’s like Schenkkan wrote a manual…This needed to be seen, especially in multicultural Miami, and we’re supporting it with post-performance discussions.”
“You know that expression ‘that could never happen here’,” Stephens says. “That is so unrealistic. World War II was a slow buildup. It’s the same thing in this play. One thing after another. It’s like ‘The War of the Worlds.’ Those things were always there, festering, waiting for the right time to rear its ugly head. Civil rights had to be forced upon people. It makes you ask why. Why do you need to hold onto this hate?”
Weiner’s Rick embodies the mindset that helped get Trump elected.
In one speech, the character expresses Trump’s effect at rallies, after uttering things that no other candidate would say, this way:“…the crowd would get really lively. They would start shouting back at him. And that would work him up. And back and forth. It was like being part of a wave or something. A landslide. Big. Bigger than yourself. You didn’t feel little anymore, you didn’t feel put down anymore. Shamed. You didn’t feel shamed anymore.”
“It’s not every day you get to do activist theater,” Weiner says. “I pay attention to the other side of politics. I read everything. Because we’re so divided, it makes sense to listen to the other side until you can’t stomach it anymore…But that’s what I love about acting: trying to understand a point of view that isn’t mine. Trying to understand his ideology, where he came from…[Schenkkan] really captures the point of view of Rick and people like him.”
To reach a wide audience with “Building the Wall,” City Theatre is offering simultaneous Creole audio translation at Saturday matinees, American sign language translation at Sunday matinees and Spanish audio translation at Friday evening performances.
Talkbacks focused on immigration issues and tolerance are scheduled after the majority of performances, with participants including representatives from the Miami Conference of Christians and Jews, the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Immigrant Justice and the League of Women Voters, as well as a panel featuring immigration lawyer and former federal prosecutor Atara Eig.
Those post-show discussions, says Schenkkan, are vital.
“Audiences really want to talk about the play. They don’t want to leave,” he says.
The playwright also points out that the plot and the theme of “Building the Wall” are not one and the same.
“The plot mechanism speaks to an issue regarding illegal immigrants and private prisons,” he says. “But its thematic core is this: Between the individual citizen and the state, who decides what is morally right and wrong? The danger in a democracy is outsourcing morality to the government in moments of crisis and panic. That was my fear in October, and that’s my fear today.
“It requires a buy-in. The danger is that people feel it’s all so complicated and confusing that they assume the government knows what it’s doing. Citizens are yielding their basic responsibilities. That’s what keeps me up at night…My trust is in the inherent decency of the American people. Let’s hope we’ll get through this. But it’s not a given.”
“Building the Wall” by Robert Schenkkan, City Theatre production in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Previews 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 28; opens 7:30 p.m. Sept. 29; regular performances 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, through Oct. 8. Cost:$34 to $54; 305-949-6722 or www.arshtcenter.org.
Here’s a riddle – name the 1892 box office flop panned by critics for lack of seriousness and for casting too many kids, which has now transformed into a force of nature timed to occur yearly..
It happens every year, right around Thanksgiving, productions of the Nutcracker pop up from coast to coast, marking the start of the holiday season. But on Saturday, Miami audiences have the ..
As Art Week approaches, Miami choreographer Marissa Alma Nick’s Alma Dance Theater is getting ready to add its distinctive voice, rehearsing for the upcoming performance of “Flowers” at the C..
Promising a night of airiness and ardor, Dimensions Dance Theatre of Miami will bring “Ballet’s Pointe of Passion” to the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, where the company joins an att..
Great friendships can nurture and prod an artist to make greater work. Think Pablo Picasso and Wifredo Lam, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Such is also the case fo..
It’s a tall order to present a season as surprising as it is moving, as disturbing as it is delightful. Miami-Dade College’s Live Arts 2017-2018 season -- Ojala/Inshallah: Wishes from the Mu..
It was only a few decades ago that finding a professional, locally produced performance was an aerobic dance in itself. But after the Miami City Ballet (established 1985), the New World Schoo..
A 50th anniversary calls for gold in celebration. But Balanchine’s “Jewels”—a sublime marriage of music and choreography from 1967—brings Emeralds, Rubies,and Diamonds. Those pre..
When the Limon Dance Company returns to Miami-Dade this weekend, it brings with it the powerful vision of founder José Limon. He was a man deeply concerned about and connected to the humanity..
When Cardi B, with her trademark no-filter attitude, raps in her recent hit “Bodak Yellow” – Now I don’t got to dance/I make money move – she has something to sing about, with her smash hit N..
Despite a packed show schedule, including performing with the Frankfurt Opera in “Rinaldo,” Sarasota native, dancer and choreographer James McGinn had a chance to discuss the upcoming dance-opera ..
Anniversaries usually celebrate the success of a partnership with symbolic gifts of crystal, china, silver and gold. For the Arts Ballet Theater of Florida, the company celebrates 20 years of..
The songs are familiar; the love story is also familiar but made fresh in “On Your Feet!,” the musical biography that comes to Miami this week. The narrative of Emilio and Gloria Estefan meet..
Dance lovers in Miami know that for the past two decades the International Ballet Festival of Miami (IBFM) has made the city in September a magnet for the brightest stars in the world of bal..
Orlando Taquechel, dance critic for two decades at the El Nuevo Herald (and now a contributor to Artburst), will have a book signing and discussion of his new book, “La danza in Miami (1998-..
The name Flamenco conjures the machine-gun snap of heels, arms arched overhead, the flick of red fabric and laser-like glares from beneath the starched black brim of a Cordobes hat. At the ed..
Watching Neri Torres rehearse is a study in focus and concentration. She demonstrates each step with an ease developed from years of immersion in the study and performance of Afro-Cuban ..
Miami-based organization Delou Africa has been the ambassador of African dance and drumming in South Florida for the last 30 years. It started as a performing company, and has since expanded..
Miami Beach’s old city hall on a Thursday evening in June made a surreal set up for anyone familiar with tango’s broody scene -- a large cozy room full of cheerful, laughing, and smiling..
When Ballet Flamenco La Rosa takes to the stage this weekend, it will present a program based on traditions which were handed down through the ages. A program filled with the mysteries of fl..
With every great new love, the beginning is a crucible of extremes – will it endure for decades or permanently scar?The program for Dimensions Dance Theater of Miami’sJuly 8show, “Fiebre: A N..
With a heightened emphasis on “Noise” as an innovative musical genre, this sixth installment of the Miami Performance Festival International (M/P’17), running June 23 to 25, challenges South..
After 17 years as a principal dancer with the esteemed San Francisco Ballet, dancing every major role and style possible, Lorena Feijoo is retiring from that company to embark on a new journe..
Miami choreographer Marissa Alma Nick is a storyteller. Her company Alma Dance Theater brings a particularly female inner world to the stage, through lush and sensual choreography. Nick’s..
Pools are ubiquitous in Miami. They dot the landscape like Jackson Pollock drip paintings. Residents swim or idle the hours away by or in the pool – and dancers of Momentum Dance Company also perf..
May’s “Mujeres” series of strong, multi-faceted, women-focused productions, commissioned for Miami Theater Center’s SandBox space, concludes with Spanish-born dancer-choreographer Carlota Pr..
One could say that Bistoury’s 305 & Havana International Improv Fest, which debuts this Saturday at Miami Theater Center, has been in the works for almost 20 years. In 1999 Cuban-born cho..
We know it’s the holiday season when trees light up, menorah candles start to burn, ubiquitous Christmas carols pipe through drugstores, “The Nutcracker” plays on every stage – and in recent ..
Late last year, on Dec. 20, 2016, Romero Britto and Mark Bryn hosted the Great Artists Series Cocktail Reception at the Britto Fine Art Gallery to celebrate the legendary impresaria, Judy Dru..
Everyone remembers a lost weekend, binge reading a novel whose ending had to wait because the body just gave out. No matter how compelling the story somewhere around the 30th hour the brain s..
Globalization has produced many stories —not all inspiring. But having a Pakistani ensemble become a worldwide sensation by playing Paul Desmond’s immortal “Take Five,” which pianist Da..
When the management of New York’s iconic Apollo Theater approached drummer Gregg Field last year about organizing a concert there in honor of the 100th anniversary of Ella Fitzgerald’s birth..
They’ve opened a Chanel fashion show in Havana and been featured in Beyoncé’s visual album for “Lemonade.” The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has danced to their music. Their Florida debu..
There are few artists who have had the impact in their disciplines that guitarist Paco De Lucía had in flamenco. There is a before-and-after De Lucía in flamenco. He expanded the harmonic voc..
Yoli Mayor is a 22-year old Miami native who won over the judges of NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” with her power voice (think Adele mixed with Etta James). This weekend, Miami audiences will h..
You might expect something a tad unusual from a jazz band comprised of Bulgarians and Cubans that’s led by the principal percussionist of the Miami Symphony Orchestra. And that’s what you’ll ..
La tradicional temporada de Cascanueces del Miami City Ballet (MCB) tendrá algo nuevo este año. La compañía que dirige Lourdes López ha decidido renovar los diseños de la superproducción que..
El programa que Dimensions Dance Theatre of Miami (DDTM) presentó el sábado pasado en su exitoso debut como compañía en residencia del South Miami Dade Cultural Arts Center (SMDCAC) y a solo ..
Hay pocos artistas que han tenido el impacto en sus disciplinas como el guitarrista Paco De Lucía tuvo en flamenco. En este género, hay un antes y después de De Lucía. Expandió el vocabul..
Dance NOW! Miami, la Florida Dance Education Organization (FDEO), Miami Dance Futures y la New World School of the Arts (NWSA) colaboraron el fin de semana pasado para presentar la Daniel Lew..
Esta es una gran noticia para el público amante del ballet en Miami. Tras un paréntesis de diez años en los que solo nos visitó de manera esporádica, la Primera Bailarina mexicana Katia Carra..
Solo hay que aplicar el concepto “seis grados de separación” a uno de los artistas que se han presentado en las Galas de Estrellas del Festival Internacional de Ballet de Miami (IBFM por sus ..
El debut de Dimensions Dance Theatre of Miami (DDTM) en noviembre del año pasado fué un acontecimiento artístico y un descubrimiento sumamente agradable. Una sola función en el Miami-Dade Cou..
El festival “Out in the Tropics”, patrocinado por Fundarte en conjunto con el Centro Cultural Español y el Miami Book Fair International, normalmente trae artistas del mundo LGBTQ e hispanoha..
La Gala anual de Cuban Classical Ballet of Miami (CCBM) es un evento que esperan con ansiedad los aficionados al ballet en Miami y, sobre todo, los admiradores del estilo cubano. Desde su deb..