The Gladstone: Building the Wall predicts a dark future that is all too close

Brad Long (as Rick) and Cassandre Mentor (as Gloria) in Building the Wall. Photo: Ari Tapiero

A future just two years hence in which the Trump administration’s detention of millions of illegal immigrants has led to atrocities: sounds improbable, doesn’t it? But weren’t we saying precisely that about Trump’s electoral chances at the outset of last year?

Authoritarianism can triumph unexpectedly, as American Pulitzer-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan sets out to warn in his political drama Building the Wall. Making its Canadian premiere with a short, upcoming run at The Gladstone, the dark vision of a possible future America was written in what the playwright has called a “white-hot fury” immediately following Trump’s presidential win in November, 2016. 

The story is set in 2019, after Trump – who’s been impeached for his actions — and his cohorts have laid waste to what was best about America, building in its place a climate of chaos and fear. In the play, a history professor is interviewing a former prison warden awaiting sentencing for having carried out the detention policy that’s led to horrific results.

“Do we take it as a literal prediction?” asks Sean Devine, whose company Horseshoes & Hand Grenades Theatre is producing the Ottawa show. “No. But the fact that (we’re seeing) deportations and banning of certain immigrants is close.”

“If you’d asked anyone two years ago did they anticipate the political violence and where we are now, they would have answered, ‘No,’” says Devine, who is directing the show. “If the play is an exaggerated warning, we’re still on the path to it.”

The play is in keeping with his company’s artistic goals of addressing political crises, says Devine. If you saw his Re:Union at the 2015 Magnetic North Theatre Festival in Ottawa, you’ll know what he means: the drama examined the timeless theme of sacrifice through the story of Norman Morrison, the young Quaker who set himself afire in front of the Pentagon in 1965 to protest the Vietnam War.

With Brad Long (who’s in the current show, playing opposite Cassandre Mentor) as Morrison, Re:Union was a tour de force of political theatre with a huge human heart.

Building the Wall is decades distant from the Vietnam war, but our own times are equally fraught. The deafening shout of political rhetoric, the rise of right-wing groups: these are among the trends that concern Devine – who ran locally for the New Democratic Party in the 2015 federal election – deeply.

His concerns aren’t just for what’s happening south of the border.

“Our own hands are not completely clean,” he says. “Whatever Stephen Harper represented, whatever we’re afraid of – has it died or just been put to brief rest? If the NDP surges and does well in the next election, the Conservatives can easily win if the left splits the vote. The fact that (some) Conservatives are tying themselves pretty closely to (far-right media website) Rebel Media – it’s not the same danger we’re seeing in the States, but we’re not clean.”

In Building the Wall, he says we see two people – Gloria, the liberal professor, and Rick, the prisoner – arguing for their own vision of America. However, the divide may not be a clear as we’d like to think. While the prisoner confesses to “horrible things,” says Devine, “There are parts of us, even as liberals, that say, ‘I identify with that’” when Rick speaks.

That drift toward the unimaginable is quickened when people are put in situations escalating beyond their control. “When you’re put in extreme situations and getting pressure from above, it’s surprising the limits of what a human can do, of how low we can go,” he says.

Watching the unfolding political situation in the U.S., Devine says he’s been most surprised about how Trump’s base – despite their leader’s almost daily offences and clear incompetence – is willing to forgive him.

He’s also flabbergasted by how the Democrats still haven’t taken responsibility for the fact that their lack of leadership helped the country slide into its current state.

When it comes to a state of danger, Devine says, “We have to stop saying, ‘It will never happen.’ It has happened.”

Building the Wall runs Nov. 30-Dec. 3 at The Gladstone (previews Nov. 28 & 29). Tickets/information:

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.