Building the Wall

kjabdsjeImagine a country where the leader has decided that the people he doesn’t like should be rounded up and removed, using any means necessary. Picture millions of people in this country being held in mass prisons with sub-human standards, causing illnesses and death in overwhelming numbers. Think of those prisoners’ records being discarded, their bodies being burned, and their murders being excused and forgotten. And then envision these people being rounded up and slaughtered to thin the numbers. Does it upset you to think about these things? I should hope so.

If you thought I was pulling images from the history books and describing Nazi Germany, you were wrong. The country you were picturing was America, albeit a fictional America of in the year 2019 after two years of Trump’s presidency. The scariest thing about this imaginary future? It’s entirely possible, plausible, and the beginnings of this story have already actually happened.

Building the Wall does not hold back any punches. Set in America after all these things have already occurred, this play is emotionally challenging, thought-provoking, and sometimes hard to watch. But it’s a play that should be watched, no matter your political leanings.

12 Peers Theater immerses the audience in the feel of being inside a prison, telling you from the moment you arrive about what to expect from the interview you’re about to watch. You are waved over with a metal detector wand, and there are signs along the hall warning you about items that are forbidden inside. The show is set in the round, a simple stage giving just enough of a prison vibe with concrete blocks and fencing hanging above a single table and two chairs on a raised platform. Throughout the show you can hear various noises in the background; small chatter and moving chairs along with a fight to be broken up at one point. Keeping the technical aspects of this show plain was a good choice on the part of technical director John Brucker, as it kept the focus solely on the conversation.

Ricardo Vila-Roger directed this show, and the best thing that can be said about his work is that the audience was glued to the players throughout. Despite there being very little movement, everything felt natural and human considering the setting. The play was roughly 80 minutes with no intermission, so to keep everyone engaged and focused on two people talking for the entire thing is a triumph in itself.

Nothing much actually happens in the show. It’s just two people talking. Rick (Tom Kolos) is a prisoner who is being interviewed by social worker and journalist Gloria (Lauren A. Bethea). But unlike the prisoners mentioned earlier, he was not rounded up in the masses and made to suffer unthinkable conditions. Instead, he was the head of security at the prison where it all started, and he has been sentenced to death for his part in the torture and genocide that occurred. Trump has since been impeached. Gloria wants Rick to tell her the real story, what nobody got to hear at his trial, and his feelings about it. After all, this is his last chance to be heard.

He starts off by building his own wall, unwilling to give her personal insight or say much more than what she already knows. The interesting thing is that what gets him to start opening up is their difference in opinions. Gloria is a woman of color, very liberal and unafraid to tell Rick what she thinks about what has happened, letting her disgust with his part in it all be known. And Rick responds by defending himself, yes, but not in the traditional way of simply breaking down the one you’re arguing with. Rick responds by telling his story and letting her see him as the person he is, with very human feelings.

Bethea was wonderful in developing her character. She starts out polite and professional, and quickly develops a back and forth with this prisoner who she clearly does not agree with. She’s respectful and she listens to his side, and yet she doesn’t let up. She doesn’t let him off easy, and she makes sure he feels accountable for his actions. Her severity towards the end of the play was powerful and exactly right for the conversation. And Kolos plays completely in tune with her. He manages to pull anger and then sympathy from the audience within a couple sentences. While he is clearly in the wrong, you don’t end up see him as a villain. Kolos played the stereotypical conservative-and-proud-of-it man, and then a fragile and sensitive guy, until they blended together. And he managed to deliver some of his lines so well that I had to stop myself from actually responding to this character on stage with my own retorts.

Clearly, I feel a definite way about this subject and the politics that are currently going on in this country. But I feel that while this play is also biased in what it is saying, it gives both sides a fair voice. It is thought-provoking and expressive, and you might need a drink after you see it like I did, but you’ll be glad you saw it. I encourage you to get there while you can.

Building the Wall runs at the Richard E. Rauh Studio Theatre at the University of Pittsburgh through June 10. For tickets and more information click here.

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