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Why the Spanish-language production of Robert Schenkkan's Building the Wall is scarily relevant
A week before the 2016 presidential election, Pulitzer- and Tony-winning dramatist Robert Schenkkan (All the Way) angrily banged out the dystopian two-hander Building the Wall, a future history play about what might happen to immigrants under a Donald Trump administration. Within months of his inauguration, the drama was being mounted in several US cities, including New York. But despite its timeliness, it was not very well-received, with reviewers dismissing it as a rough draft of an alarmist idea. It lasted less than a month Off Broadway at New World Stages.
Oh what a difference three years and a new cultural perspective make. Building the Wall is back in New York, but this time it's in Spanish (with English subtitles) and feels much more urgent and terrifyingly real.
A board member of the lauded Costa Rican theatre company Teatro Espressivo brought Building the Wall to the attention of director Natalia Mariño in 2018. After reading it, she realized it would be impossible to stage the play without updating it to reflect what was happening at the Mexico-U.S. border, and how Central American refugees fleeing violence in their home counties were ending up in cages. With Schenkkan's blessing, she adapted the script and had it translated. The resulting production, La construcción del muro, enjoyed critically acclaimed engagements in Costa Rica, El Salvador and Spain, and is currently having its U.S. premiere at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center with a limited run co-produced by Teatro LATEA.
La construcción del muro centers on Gloria (Magdalena Morales), a historian who arrives at a prison to interview Rick (Rodrigo Durán), the former head of a facility for undocumented immigrants who has been convicted of unspecified crimes. As they talk, the stomach-churning horrors of what Rick did to his charges is revealed.
Mariño has a background in documentary theatre, and her take on La construcción del muro feels like it was ripped from the headlines. "We could update this play every day," she says. "As an artist, it's impossible for me to tell a story without taking into consideration real aspects of what's going on in the world."
She also changed the character of Gloria, originally written to be African American, to a woman of Central American descent. Guatemalan actress Magdalena Morales was initially hesitant to play the role because "I only want to be a part of telling stories I can tell with my body and history," she explains. A political activist as well as an artist, she worried La construcción del muro would be reductive, but she was relieved to discover that Mariño's vision was "much more complex than I expected." Morales' devastating performance is amplified by Mariño's use of video, as a cameraman captures her reactions to Rick's crimes in close-up.
By casting Morales, Mariño transformed Schenkkan's American story into a cautionary tale for all cultures, including her own. She notes that many of her fellow Costa Ricans look down on Nicaraguans, a reminder that prejudice against and mistreatment of immigrants is, sadly, a global phenomenon.
In a depressing if not very surprising turn of events, actor Antonio Rojas, who portrayed Rick in Costa Rica, El Salvador and Spain, was denied a visa to reprise the role in the U.S. So Costa Rican actor Rodrigo Durán is playing the part here.
But you won't see Morales or Durán in one of La construcción del muro's most harrowing sequences, when the lights go out and the audience hears a recording of a young boy crying for his father in Spanish. You don't need subtitles to understand his desperate, heart-piercing pleas.
Jose Solís is a NY-based writer and editor who's been covering theatre and film professionally since 2003. He is a member of the Drama Desk. Follow him at @josesolismayen. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Magdalena Morales and Antonio Rojas in La construcción del muro. Photos by Esteban Chinchilla.
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