Sunday, August 06, 2017

Schenkkan's "Building the Wall" and the Middleman Minority Phenomenon

This Robert Schenkkan play, "Building the Wall," just got this rave review by theater critic Charles McNulty (see below) in the Los Angeles Times.  It appears to be captivating folks across the country by imagining the absolute worst in a dystopian portrayal of extreme, morally wrong immigration policy that showed recently in Los Angeles.

It shows in Austin at the University of Texas between Aug. 30-Sept. 10th. You can get pertinent information and a link to tickets here.

From what I can gather, the play sounds like a vivid nightmare I once had my first year in college.  I had been reading and learning about the horrific Japanese internment experience here in the U.S. and I dreamed that the government would do to us Mexicans what it did to the Japanese.   

The already tens of thousands experiencing roundups and deportations have already been living this nightmare—and with a ferociousness against Mexican immigrants. But my dream and this play is about everybody else, including people like myself who literally don't have anywhere else "to go back to."   I encourage you to read Dr. Roberto Rodriguez, in his Diverse Issues in Higher Education piece titled, "Mexican American or Mexican Mexicano?" It addresses the complexities of citizenship—actually, second-class citizenship—for Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and people of color, generally.

As Mexicans and Mexican Americans, we are not only home, but in our ancestral home as Tejan@s in Texas and in the Southwest, generally.  Even if our genes traveled around the globe, our people never left the continent.  We have always been here.  We supersede the very notion of "citizenship" itself, a modern construct, like "nation-state," "border," "Texas," "United States," and "race."

I gather that "Building the Wall" is a good play for considering the oppressor-oppressed relationship, both its psychology and the role of what scholarship and theorizing in sociology refers to as the "middleman [sic] minority" phenomenon. These are the colonized, minority "agents of empire," that further function symbolically to legitimate it.  Structurally, as the middle people in a class and racial hierarchy, they have a stake in the existing arrangement
as direct beneficiaries.  A psychological aspect of this is termed in scholarship as either "internalized racism" or "internalized oppression" that I have written about in my own work.  

Internalized oppression occurs when minority group members come to adopt and hold those same prejudices and attitudes that the dominant group holds toward their own group to the point that they despise the "Mexican-ness" within themselves.  They drink the Kool-Aid.  They buy into the pejorative, socially-constructed myths about them, their people, and their kind. 

McNulty and the play itself wants us to consider the slippery policy slope that plummets us into a dark, immoral abyss that threatens an ultimately self-destructive cultural shift to "a banality of evil," as the late philosopher Hannah Arendt hypothesized in her controversial book, widely regarded as a journalistic triumph, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.

Two more related reflections.  First, I saw the War for the Planet of the Apes (2017 film) recently and "Donkey," himself a "colonized ape," becomes a brutal oppressor, doing humans' bidding toward other apes held in captivity.  And my how he oppresses them with impunity! 

Cesar, the apes’ beloved leader, openly wonders what, if anything, may be “left to save” with the likes of Donkey should the liberation of all apes occur. After all, Donkey shares a deep investment along with the dominant group in the current societal arrangements that further constructs Cesar and his "ilk" as "radicals" and "troublemakers."

I'll not give any more of this movie away that I encourage you to see, but Donkey is a perfect example of the oppressor, middleman minority.  What's important to remember here is that these are ordinary, bureaucratic roles within an otherwise highly-stratified, hierarchy and occupational structure.  In a sense, Donkey was "better off" than the rest, but his status was equally tenuous relative to his imprisoned counterparts in the long shadow of what is arguably a "bureaucracy of genocide," in Arendt's view (e.g.,  (see Bilsky, 2015).
  Second, I am reading the famous text authored by Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning in Spanish (El Hombre en Busca De Sentido).  He comments on the middlemen minorities there that he refers to as the “Kapos” at Auschwitz and other camps who carried out the Nazi's genocidal work in exchange for unlimited alcohol and saving their own skins, at least for awhile…  The parallels in all of this are striking and so I had to share.  I would like to see this provocative play when it comes to UT.  It already offers a lot of food for thought.

Angela Valenzuela

How does darkness overtake a nation? The philosopher Hannah Arendt took up the subject in her book “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” which investigated the mystery of how ordinary Germans transformed into murderous Nazis.
The face of evil, Arendt discovered, wasn’t a demon lurking in the cellar but the factory supervisor in the nice house across the street. Those carrying out the orders that led to the extermination of millions of Jews along with other marginalized groups became part of the bureaucracy of genocide. This startling and still controversial insight — that the Holocaust was executed not by sadists but by conformist clerks and self-interested middle managers — inspired the famous subtitle of Arendt’s book: “A Report on the Banality of Evil.”
Robert Schenkkan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (“The Kentucky Cycle”) who co-wrote the screenplay for “Hacksaw Ridge,” has a new play that explores the concept of the banality of evil in our own backyard. “Building the Wall,” which opened Saturday at the Fountain Theatre, imagines the unimaginable happening in Trump’s America.
In a program note, Schenkkan acknowledges a debt to Gitta Sereny’s “Into That Darkness.” He describes her book as “an attempt to understand the bleakest of the Nazi horrors by focusing on one ordinary man who, for a brief moment, found himself with unlimited power.”
The parallels with “Building the Wall” are clear, but the play was written expressly in response to what Schenkkan sees as the threats posed by Trump’s dangerous rhetoric and his reopening of the “authoritarian playbook,” which calls for the creation of “a constant state of crisis” and the scapegoating of “minorities with appeals to nationalism, racism and isolationism.”
The crisis in the background of this two-character play, directed with unflagging concentration by Michael Michetti, is an incident in Times Square that “irradiated” two square blocks and allowed Trump to impose martial law. The year is 2019, but “near future” might be a more accurate delineation for this terrifyingly plausible work of dystopian fiction.
Bo Foxworth, who appeared in last fall’s South Coast Repertory production of “All the Way,” Schenkkan’s Tony Award-winning drama about Lyndon B. Johnson, plays Rick, the supervisor of a private prison who has been arrested and placed in solitary confinement for crimes that take some time to be revealed. Judith Moreland portrays Gloria, an African American history professor who talks with Rick in a chilly prison meeting room (conjured in all its generic menace by set designer Se Oh). She wants to understand what motivated his actions, and in return she’ll give him an opportunity to tell his side of the story.
The play, which arrives at the Fountain in the first stop in a series of productions set to open across the country as part of the National New Play Network’s rolling world premiere program, unfolds as a conversation between a liberal professor who happens to be a black woman and a Trump supporter who can’t understand why white Christians can’t defend their identity too. The two sniff each other out, challenging ideological assumptions while finding unexpected points of connection, but Schenkkan is less interested in the psychological dance between these characters than in the events that put Rick behind bars.
It may not seem entirely credible that Rick would divulge to a stranger with antithetical political views the dark secrets he tried to keep from his wife, but Schenkkan’s writing rarely hits a false note. Rick’s confession, centering on the detention of immigrants whose legal status is in dispute, builds steadily to a terrifying climax.
The play connects the violent sentiments of political rallies with policies that find an opportunity when chaos strikes the nation. The ratcheting up of the war against terrorism permits the rounding up of immigrants, which leads to the practical problem of how to hold a swelling population that can’t entirely be repatriated. Rick, in charge of one of the detention centers, is beset with managerial problems that become human catastrophes. Harrowing descriptions of the sanitation emergency are soon eclipsed by the graphic misery of the cholera epidemic that breaks out.
The situation only degenerates from there. Step by step, Schenkkan gets us to see the way the collapse of institutions leads to the collapse of morality and the rule of law. “Building the Wall” conjures what appears to be a worst-case scenario, though who would dare presume to know what the worst-case scenario even is anymore?
The acting in this 90-minute, intermission-less production is scrupulously well observed. Moreland, delivering a magnificent performance, finds subtle ways to convey the weight of Gloria’s conscience. The character is obviously a first-class academic, but she’s hardly dispassionate. Her experience as a target of hateful prejudice informs her research.
More to the dramatic point, the depth of Gloria’s responsiveness helps her to understand political views diametrically opposed to her own. She may wince at the faults in Rick’s reasoning, but she recognizes his alienation and powerlessness.
Foxworth neither sentimentalizes nor demonizes Rick, who recounts with blasted neutrality the path from his hardscrabble youth as military brat to his patriotic enlisting in the Army after Sept. 11 to his seduction as a veteran by Trump’s law-and-order message.
Rick isn’t by nature a bad man, but that doesn’t exculpate him of the atrocities committed on his watch. As a character, he may be the incarnation of an idea in a carefully arranged dramatic argument, but Foxworth personalizes the figure just enough for us to believe in his existence — and to wonder about the extent of his complicity.
“Building the Wall,” which would benefit from a touch more variety in the writing, stays on top of the headlines with mentions of Trump’s blocked travel bans and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ favorable stand on federal use of private prisons. Schenkkan will likely have to do some tinkering to keep the play up to date in future productions. But there’s no denying that this dramatic object lesson is expertly laid out.
Even a lapse at the end into rhetoric, when Rick incongruously stutters into academic speech (“What is a wall? It’s a, a construct, a, a device, for keeping people out”), cannot mar the effectiveness of this expedited theatrical construction. “Building the Wall” should be seen and shuddered over, if only to heighten our collective vigilance.
The theater historically has provided a forum for citizens to contemplate the agonizing issues of the day, and it’s heartening to see Schenkkan and the Fountain respond with such celerity to present dangers.
Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times

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