Review: ‘Building the Wall’ starts a powerful, captivating conversation

A conversation was sparked after the first production of “Building the Wall” by playwright Robert Schenkkan premiered in Michigan last night. The 70-minute-play, directed by Carrie McNulty, has already sparked controversy and confusion in the city with its artwork of an angry Donald Trump on the poster. What’s important to be pointed out though, is that the Actors’ Theatre Grand Rapids production is less about Trump and more about the messages and ideologies that existed long before the last election.

The play starts out with a minimal set — a table and two chairs — and two characters: Rick (Calin Skidmore), who’s clearly a prisoner in an orange jumpsuit, and Gloria (Channelle Battles), who we later find out is a college professor interviewing Rick about “what really happened.”

It’s not clear at first, but we soon find out that this scene is set some time in the future from now. As the story begins to unfold, we realize that by this point Trump has been impeached, and more events have taken place resulted in Rick’s sentencing to death row. There’s a mention of the Russia allegations, and a “Times Square incident,” which can be confusing because of current events, but it’s actually a fictional terrorist attack that has taken place.

Both Skidmore and Battles made excellent use of their minimal space by accentuating their emotions to the audience. With just a table, chairs and a script, this play solely relies on the presence and performance of the actors, and they were there, gripping the audience every minute of the way.

After some curiosity and confusion, we slowly begin to learn what really happened, and it is horrifying. Skidmore, anxious and angry, transitions to grief and captivates the audience under a single spotlight for the most emotional scene of the night, just minutes from the end of the show.

Battles skillfully captivated the audience emotionally, especially in a scene where her character talks about the first time she experienced racism at the age of six. The room was quiet, audience at the edge of their seats, and you could hear them gasp as we hear the story. At the end of the show, Battles and Skidmore walk off stage, and you can feel their emotion still in the room, you can tell they really had to channel those raw emotions in their performance, and they succeeded.

The play focuses less on Trump — he seems to only be mentioned once or twice — and more on the immigration efforts turned genocide. The play was written one week before the 2016 election, but it doesn’t feel rushed or cut short. Because of the political and social relativity, this show is hosting talk backs every single night of the performance to discuss the themes and concepts from the show.

Last night, the audience talked with Michelle Urbane from Grand Rapids Community College and One World Diversity and Leslie Curry, a lawyer with Legal Aid of Western Michigan. Tonight, the audience will hear from a man from the GR Rapid Response to ICE, a group who aids immigrants who are at risk of deportation from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). On Saturday, the audience will hear from Edye Evans Hyde from Grand Rapids’ black theater group Ebony Road Players.

Building the Wall
Actors Theatre
March 22-24, 28-31