A note from "Building the Wall" playwright Robert Schenkkan (pictured left) on his inspiration and why it's so important to stage this piece in the nation's capital.
I wrote Building the Wall in late October before the election, but even then it seemed to me that important lines had been crossed in our political system. The naked appeals to racism, nativism, and violence by the then Republican candidate were often dismissed by nervous commentators, and even more nervous Republican political leaders, as just “words.” “He doesn’t really mean it,” we were told. Four months into the new administration and clearly he means it. More worrisome is the manner in which Congressional members who could not hide their distaste for the Candidate are now lining up behind the President.
Let me be very clear, the issues here are not Republican vs. Democrat, or even Liberal vs. Conservative. What we are witnessing is a concerted attack on fundamental American values: separation of powers, freedom of speech, freedom of press, independent judiciary, etc. These are the cornerstones of our democracy and the reason our Republic has succeeded so well for over 200 years. What has happened is Congressional representatives have temporarily “shelved” their allegiance to the Constitution in order to embrace a once in a lifetime opportunity to exercise complete power. We have seen how such temporary moral transactions played out in the past and the results were not pretty.
None of this is new, of course; the Authoritarian playbook is well known. Create a constant state of crisis that only a “strong” leader can solve. Encourage fear, divide the populace and scapegoat racial or religious minorities and immigrants. Smear your opponents as unpatriotic and attack the Press as “Enemies of the People.” The question, of course, is not so much what the President will do but how all of us – citizens and our representatives - will respond?
This is why it was so important for me to see Forum Theater’s production of Building the Wall produced here in Washington, DC, at the Arena Stage, not two miles from the White House. The vision of the future imagined in this play is reasonable and, indeed, logical. The only thing that stands in its way will be moral resistance by ordinary citizens. This requires two things. First, we must recognize that what is happening right now is not normal. It is human nature to avert our eyes from what is unpleasant, but we must not avoid or deny the reality which is unfolding. Second, moving forward we will all of us be asked directly or indirectly to collaborate with or support what is happening. We must not cede our moral authority to the State. This is critical. The decisions we make must be predicated on clear moral values, not political expediency.
This theatrical argument for individual conscience versus government authority is not new; Aeschylus made the case for it 2,000 years ago in Antigone. Contemporary writers like Arthur Miller, Athol Fugard, Lynn Nottage, and others have frequently and eloquently made the same appeal. This is necessary because the Authoritarian virus never completely dies out. The only cure, then and now, is alert, responsible citizenry.