On Oct. 16, 2017, the Central Square Theater in Cambridge, MA, hosted a reading of the play Building the Wall, by Pulitzer- and Tony-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan. The play presents a dystopian future in which fear of the other is allowed to overrule human rights and even basic human decency. The audience was left with a lot of thoughts and feelings to process after the gripping conclusion. Director of The ILC Public Education Institute Denzil Mohammed participated in a panel discussion following the reading to help make meaning of it all.
The one-act play consists of an interview between a history professor and an inmate accused of unthinkable horrors. At first, the conversation sounds like a debate you could easily observe today with the inmate making typical anti-immigrant arguments and the professor making common retorts. As the play progresses, the inmate reveals how, as the former warden of a detention center, he felt pressure to inflict progressively more injurious harms ending in atrocity.
“Theater can be a safe place for dangerous conversations.”
Some audience members feared the “unthinkable” ending could be close to reality if fear-based prejudices are allowed to grow unchecked. In responding, Denzil first pointed out that the horrors depicted in the play were conducted out of the public eye and that most Americans in the play’s reality did not know about it until it was too late. In the same way, even though immigration is often in the news, most Americans in today’s reality don’t know that much about it. It is up to those of us who work with immigrants every day, who are knowledgeable of immigration laws and policy changes, and who research immigration to shed light on the issues.
Denzil also suggested that rather than relying on sound bites, it is important to be reminded of shared American values such as equal opportunity, basic human rights, compassion and shared prosperity. He concluded with, “Never miss a chance to stand up for someone or tell the real stories of immigrants.”