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Anson Stevens-Bollen

They Were Ruled by Those Who Hated Them

June 28, 2017, 12:00 am

“Is my race a problem for you?”

It’s one of the very first things Gloria says; we learn quickly that she will pull no punches. She is a black university professor, and she is interviewing Rick, a white inmate in a prison in El Paso. The year is 2019. Rick has done something horrible, presumably stemming from his militant and nationalist views. As Gloria goes through a string of questions, the nature of his crimes comes to light, and the deep divide between the characters alternately opens and closes as we listen.

Building the Wall, the very new play from Pulitzer- winning political playwright Robert Schenkkan (All the Way, Tony Award for Best Play in 2014), first opened in Los Angeles in March of this year. It then moved to small theaters around the United States, and Santa Fe’s own Adobe Rose Theatre was the fifth to commit. Schenkkan himself attended ART’s opening weekend on June 16. Santa Fe Director Kristin Goodman says that as late as a week before opening, Schenkkan sent her a revised version of the script, as the fresh play is still evolving. (She says she told Schenkkan she wouldn’t incorporate the latest edits out of respect for the actors, and that Schenkkan was understanding.)

Danielle Louise Reddick brings ferocity and empathy to the role of Gloria.
Catherine Lynch
Talking about the play is a delicate dance, because much of the tension between the characters stems from what we don’t know about Rick, here played by Todd Anderson. Dressed in an orange prison uniform, he paces and forces laughs, talking anxiously. Anderson is amiable yet ominous. Rick is used to being in prisons, we learn, but not as an inmate. He is a former guard and executive who has dealt closely with minority populations behind bars, many of whom would be deported upon their release. He feels strongly about keeping America full of Americans; “you don’t have borders, you don’t have a country,” he quips. He believes that he and Gloria are the same type of person—“working people, middle-class,” he says. He voted for Trump.

As for Gloria, we know she is feminine but fierce. Actress Danielle Louise Reddick strikes an intimidating figure—we suspect out of need. Gloria has been called slurs since childhood, and Reddick’s quiet ferocity comes out in steely glares and a tucked chin. We learn much less about her, personally, but she tries hard to draw Rick in. Her smile, when she uses it, is 1,000 watts; Rick mentions that he met Trump at a rally, and Gloria genuinely beams when she asks, “What was that like?” She finally gets the antsy, pacing Rick to sit down by telling him her brother enlisted in the Marines. She says that black people spend their time trying to survive racism rather than understand it; here, she seeks to understand.

Gloria has come to the prison to get Rick’s story. Perhaps for an essay, perhaps for a book, perhaps to simply throw into a fire—she doesn’t know yet. His trial has been televised and the controversy in which he has been involved is national news. She is eager to pick his brain both for academia and personal gain, and he is eager to set the story straight. He is not a monster. He had his reasons.

The play runs 90 minutes with no intermission, and it flies by. It is presented in the round, with the audience seated on four sides of a sparse set, and smart blocking from Goodman plays the action fairly to all directions.

In a discussion with Goodman and Reddick during rehearsals, they made it clear that one of the aims of the play is to humanize both ends of the political spectrum. Through Schenkkan’s choices, however, in the first half of the play, it is hard to see the deep good in Rick. He’s a nice enough guy and all, but man, is he full of shit. Gloria is constantly referencing facts, referring to her notes, calmly countering him; Rick consistently reverts back to opinions (being thrilled when Trump would make fun of people; when confronted with the fact that Trump lies, he says, “I don’t see it that way”) and falsehoods (a claim that Obama invaded Libya; that illegal immigrants are stealing all of America’s jobs). It’s hard to relate to someone you are so exasperated with, yet Gloria keeps her cool like a saint. For the first chunk of the action, we expect to leave this play feeling the exact same way as when we came in.

There is a shift, though, as the dialogue moves from discussing Rick’s distant past to more recent events; namely, the ones that landed him in jail. Without revealing too much of the well-crafted story, just know this: It is bad. Like, real bad. But, unnervingly, it is all entirely plausible. Rick was just a corrections executive trying to do the right thing, yet caught up in the red tape and white collars of an ugly anti-immigrant government and a ruthless, profit-driven privatized prison network. He made a lot of bad choices. Gloria keeps asking: Why didn’t he just quit? But he simply couldn’t, he says. He had duties: to his employees, to his family, and, of course, to his country.

Will this play make Berniecrats suddenly want to hug Trumpers? Will MAGA folks start wearing pantsuits? Absolutely not. But could this play make staunch progressives shift uneasily in their seats, seeing the toll taken even on those who enforce their own unfair policies? Will conservative-leaning audience members furrow their brows and ask themselves Gloria’s deceptively simple questions as they lie awake in bed? Hopefully. And likely.



Building the Wall
7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday June 29-July 1;
3 pm Sunday July 2. $15-$25.
Adobe Rose Theatre,
1213 Parkway Drive, 629-8688


 

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