A Serious Talk with A Serious Man: Robert Schenkkan, Pulitzer-Prize Winning Playwright

Stephen Fife

Writer, Non-Registered Critics

"Everything Donald Trump is doing now is right out of the Authoritarian Playbook.  Right out of it.   Make people feel powerless and overwhelmed?  Check.  Attack the press as the enemy of the people?  Check.  Portray yourself as the only one who can save the day?  Check."

It's a beautiful March day in Los Angeles, 85 degrees and sunny, but here at the beach in Santa Monica, it's foggy and chilly.  Robert Schenkkan is saying this as he sits on a bench beside the Twisted Hipster, looking out at the rapidly-disappearing vista.

"What Trump is up to is nothing less than a full-out assault on basic American values and individual rights.  People need to stay very conscious about what is going on and need to keep asking: what can I do?  How can I help defend against this attack on our freedoms?  The most important thing - and I cannot stress this enough - is that we cannot cede moral authority to the State and allow them to let us feel irrelevant.  We have to reject the false narrative that this administration has been putting out there.  The decisions we make over the next 18 months are very important and may well determine the future of this country - and, consequently, of the world."

Schenkkan may well be the most important American playwright of our time.  Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for The Kentucky Cycle in 1992 - his cycle of nine connected one acts exploring American Mythology and identity -- his career went into overdrive last year with All The Way (about President Lyndon B. Johnson) receiving the Tony Award for Best Play and getting made into an HBO film starring Bryan Cranston (who also played LBJ on Broadway, winning the Tony for Best Actor), while his co-adaptation of the film Hacksaw Ridge nabbed  him an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay.  But anyone looking at him here would simply see a slight, aging man with a knit cap pulled closely over his scalp.  His voice is high-pitched, his tone is thoughtful and worried, like a dad terrified for his child's future.

"I feel like artists working today have a pressing responsibility to speak to these issues, and to the choices that we as a country are facing.  The urgency I feel right now as a citizen and as a theater artist cannot be over-stated.  This is a crisis like no other that we have faced in our country's history.  Yes, the threat of fascism and autocracy has been there before, certainly during both World Wars in the last century, as well as during the purges of Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee.  But there has never been a president like Donald Trump, who is using the highest office in the land to pose such a clear and present danger to everything we represent as Americans.  The hypocrisy of his doing this in the service of protecting us individually and collectively - well, like I said before, that's right out of the Authoritarian Playbook.  And that's why we have to keep pushing back when he tries to divide us and fill us with fear."

What Schenkkan has specifically done is to write a 2-person play called Building The Wall about the Trump Presidency that is currently in previews for its World Premiere at LA's Fountain Theatre.  Directed by LA's own Michael Michetti and starring local actors Bo Foxworth and Judith Moreland, the production will open on March 18th and is scheduled to run until May 21st.   (boxoffice@fountaintheatre.com or 323-663-1525 for tickets and information.)  Its opening here will be followed by productions at four other theaters across the country and possibly more - and there is great interest from theaters in Canada, London and elsewhere.

Building The Wall takes place in 2019, when the impact of Trump's current immigration policies have run their destructive course, rounding up and detaining millions of immigrants.  Now a writer interviews the supervisor of a private prison as he himself awaits sentencing for carrying out this federal policy, and they both look back at the time we are living in now, trying to figure out how such terrible violations of individual rights could ever have been carried out in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

"I think history will not look back at us kindly," he says with deep sadness in his voice.  "But we have to give the devil his due - Donald Trump spoke to people's anxieties in a way that the progressives weren't able to.  We took our eyes off the ball during the Obama years, and the result is the terrible situation that we find ourselves in right now.  Each of us helped in our way to create this situation, and each of us will have to account for our moral courage - or lack of such - in the face of such an assault on the values that we purport to represent.   The outcome is by no means decided.  And the choices that we make now will determine the course that this country follows, both in the near future and in the very long term."

Building the Wall previews tonight and tomorrow and plays March 18 - May 21. Visit fountaintheatre.com for tickets.

Steve is a 5-tool writer (plays, screenplays, novels, poetry, journalism) who has had 11 books published, 10 plays produced, and has written for the New York Times “Arts & Leisure”, Village Voice, New Republic, and many others. He is one of the few people on the planet who can lay claim to spending time with Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Sandy Meisner, Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, as well as so many other extraordinary people who refused to color inside the lines. He is always on the lookout for the original and the incisive.